Sunday, December 1, 2013

Vermont's Right to Request

In the summer of 2012, Anne-Marie Slaughter brought national attention to the inequality of women in the workplace and the possible policy changes that could help women (and men) balance work and domestic responsibilities. These include more flexible work schedules, working from home, and maternity/paternity leave. Over the past few years, workplace policies have become increasingly inflexible, imposing a burden on many parents, especially working mothers. According to National Study of Employers, the percentage of companies allowing employees to take breaks for personal or family responsibilities decreased from 73% in 2005 to 52% in 2012. In addition, the maximum length of leave time for fathers, adoptive parents, and family members caring for the ill has decreased since 2005.

Today, Vermont is the only state to have passed a “right to request” amendment, as part of the “Equal Pay” Law, allowing employees to request flexible schedules at least twice per year. According to this amendment, the employer must consider the employee’s request unless it is “inconsistent with business operations.” This could mean that the schedule would impose “a burden on an employer of additional costs,” “an inability to reorganize work among existing staff,” and “a detrimental impact on business quality or business performance,” among other reasons for rejection of the request. Following suit with this state law, San Francisco's Board of Supervisors recently passed a city law requiring San Francisco companies to let employees request flexible schedules.

So what is unique about Vermont? Why is this the only state to have passed such a bill when no similar national policy has ever been considered?

The first factor could be the party demographics of the Vermont General Assembly. As a blue state, it is not surprising to hear that Democrats make up 63% of the House and 67% of the Senate. In addition, 4% of the House and 10% of the Senate belong to the Vermont Progressive Party, which situates in the center-left of the ideological spectrum. But Vermont is not the most liberal of the 50 states: neighboring state Massachusetts has a state legislature with 80% Democrats in the House and 90% Democrats in the Senate. So this is certainly not a simple party affiliation issue.

Furthermore, the roll call vote shows that the party preferences for this bill are somewhat unclear. In the House, the bill passed 115-22, with 12 legislators absent. The party breakdown of this roll call vote in the House might suggest it was a partisan issue, as 21 of the 22 who voted nay are Republican and only one is Democrat. But still, about half of the Republicans in the House supported the liberal bill. And in the Senate, all 29 Senators voted in favor of the bill, regardless of party affiliation.

Cynthia Browning, the only Democrat to vote against the bill seems to be further to the right on the ideological spectrum than other Democrats. Looking at her voting records, she voted against her party on issues such as same-sex marriage and the legalization of medical marijuana.

This roll call suggests that party affiliation is not the sole factor influencing the Vermont General Assembly. Perhaps legislators, both Democrat and Republican, are clustered further to left of the ideological spectrum, enabling the Assembly to introduce and pass more liberal legislation. Vermont’s open primary system supports this theory because open primaries are thought to elect more moderate candidates. Every candidate, either Republican or Democrat, must appeal to the median voter in Vermont in order to win the primaries and earn consideration in the general election. With a median voter situated further to the left of ideological spectrum than the median voter in many other states, Vermont’s open primaries favor liberal candidates over conservative candidates, so Republican candidates must campaign with more moderate platforms, and they cannot vote extremely conservatively, or they will likely lose their seat in the next election.

The liberal demographics of Vermont, combined with an open primary election, enable the state to be uniquely liberal in the state legislature, even though they do not have the largest majority of Democrats in the General Assembly compared to other liberal states. I believe the open primaries lead the members of the General Assembly to situate themselves to the left of the center, and this is what enables liberal legislation, such as the “right to request” law to pass.

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  1. Jane, great blog post! Your analysis regarding the median voter was very compelling.

    Having lived in the South my entire life, I can attest to the huge differences you can see between parties from state-to-state. The explanation that the average elected legislator, regardless of party affiliation, is closer to the left than in most over states makes a lot of sense given the legislation you’re seeing. I’m also curious if demographics play any role in pushing this legislation. Vermont is incredibly small state and an incredibly liberal state. So, maybe a lack of big business (due to a lack of a huge workforce) plus a liberal slant to the legislature allowed this bill to have a better chance to pass.

  2. A good point to know would be whether the Vermont legislature is professional or not. Having lived next to Vermont for most of my life, I can attest to the fact that it is a breeding ground for the latest in liberal ideas whereas Massachusetts, however liberal, has to deal with a much larger economy and many more mundane concerns, leaving nowhere near as much time to dedicate to issues like this as Vermont has.

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