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State Sen. Catherine Pugh, D-Baltimore City. (File photo)

Paid sick leave measure provokes strong debate

ANNAPOLIS — Supporters of a bill that would require sick leave for all employees say they are optimistic about the chances of passing the law this year.

The proposal, which will require paid sick leave for employees of larger companies and unpaid leave workers at so-called mom and pop shops, will be part of a hearing before the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday afternoon.

The tone of the debate is similar to that which accompanied last year’s effort to increase the minimum wage in the state, with supporters calling the effort an equity issue while opponents make say they are concerned about harmful effects on business. Both sides offer studies to bolster their arguments.

“This is an issue whose time has come,” said Melissa Broome, senior policy advocate for Baltimore-based Jobs Opportunities Task Force.

“Regardless of your political affiliation, we all know what it’s like to get sick,” she said. “We all know what it’s like to have a child get sick.”

Under the bill, businesses with 10 or more employees would be required to offer paid sick leave at the rate of 1 hour for every 30 worked. The leave would begin accruing immediately when an employee is hired and the employee would be eligible to take the leave after 90 days of employment.

For businesses with less than 10 employees — a category that Broome says covers about 70 percent of employers in the state — workers would be eligible to accrue unpaid sick leave.

Broome said 40 percent of workers in the state currently do not have access to paid leave that can be taken if they or a child becomes ill. Workers, some in the food service industry, who become ill are often faced with the choice of working or taking time off, which in some cases can result in loss of employment.

But opponents balk at the measure and call it offensive to small business owners.

Jessica Cooper, state director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said members of her organization are “overwhelmingly opposed” to the legislation.

“Even those who already offer leave are opposed to it,” Cooper said, adding that offering sick leave “is a way some businesses use to distinguish themselves.”

Additionally, Cooper said, some businesses are still struggling to adapt to the additional costs of health care legislation and a minimum wage increase.

“This bill is not in a silo,” Cooper said.

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce is also opposing the bill. Deriece Pate Bennett, vice president of government affairs for the chamber, said the bill imposes employer mandates and opens the door to potential litigation. It also adds administrative burdens to businesses, she said.

“Not all businesses are set up the same way,” Pate Bennett said.

But Broome said the intent is to force “big-box stores” to offer their employees the benefit. She declined to name specific companies, saying she did not want to make the bill about one business or another.

This is the third year the legislation has been introduced in the General Assembly. The legislation was defeated in committee in each of the last two years.

Broome said the legislation was pushed to the side last year in favor of passing minimum wage increases but that she believes legislative leaders have indicated that passage “is not a matter of if but a matter of when.”

President Barack Obama is backing the effort and invited Sen. Catherine Pugh, D-Baltimore City and sponsor of the bill in the state legislature, to attend the State of the Union address last month.

Additionally, three states — California, Connecticut and Massachusetts — and a number of cities have adopted the measure. A similar bill is being considered in New Jersey.

Pugh told a gathering of business leaders in Baltimore that she is optimistic about the fate of her bill, which has 20 co-sponsors.

But the bill’s prospects, even if it receives the 24 votes needed for passage in the Senate, is less than certain.

Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr. was less optimistic, and he suggested last week that Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan, who campaigned on a platform of making the state more business friendly, would likely veto the bill if it passed.

“It hasn’t passed in the Senate Finance Committee in the past,” Miller said. “Senator Pugh sits on that committee. Maybe she can find the votes to turn it around.”

Hogan has taken a wait-and-see approach to the measure and has not commented on whether he would veto such a bill.

Broome said that leaves open the possibility that Hogan may yet support and ultimately sign the bill if it were to pass.

“I’d be careful (not) to be so quick to say that he’ll veto the bill,” Broome said. “I think he’s being smart to wait and see how this plays out and how the bill will work out. “