Montgomery County’s passage of a bill Tuesday to become the first jurisdiction in Maryland to guarantee paid sick and safe leave to employees may be a catalyst for similar legislation to be enacted statewide, advocates say.
“We’re leading the way, given that it was not successful at the state level, so we really are hoping this will build that momentum, and that the state will take a look at it again and hopefully adopt their own bill,” said Nancy Navarro, Montgomery County councilwoman and co-sponsor of the bill.
As of Oct. 1, 2016, all employers within Montgomery County will be required to provide employees with sick and safe leave at an accrual rate of at least one earned hour per 30 hours of work, with accumulated hours not exceeding 56 hours — or seven work days — in a single year.
For businesses with less than five employees, only 32 of those hours — about four work days’ worth — must be paid, according to the amended bill.
“It’s long overdue, and we think it’s only fair for this county to do what’s right for its workers,” said Jaime Contreras, vice president of 32BJ SEIU. “D.C. has done it already, other jurisdictions have done it already, and we think it’s about time that we take care of our workers in Montgomery County.”
When compared to jurisdictions that already have established paid sick and safe laws, Montgomery County’s bill falls in the middle.
Montgomery’s accrual rate matches those of Jersey City, New York City and Portland; it does not apply to individual contractors, employees who work eight or less hours each week, or employees who only travel through the county; and it allows for up to 56 paid hours to carry over into the following year unless an employer awards the anticipated earned sick leave to an employee at the beginning of the year.
“It’s our job to level the playing field so that employers are competing on the right basis, which is that the basics are protected and that all workers in any business size know that they have some paid sick days,” said Montgomery Council Councilman Hans Riemer.
Despite amendments enacted with an eye to easing the bill’s impact on small businesses, critics of the measure said that it still will hurt those employers.
“We’re told that small businesses with less than 10 employees really make up the bulk of the business community in Montgomery County,” said Montgomery County Councilwoman Nancy Floreen. “We’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of small businesses, most of whom are not following what the government does, certainly, and all of whom have financial challenges in making their businesses work.”
Michael Neary, an employment attorney for Lerch, Early & Brewer, said that small local businesses in Montgomery County could have a harder time competing with larger companies that already offer a form of sick leave to their employees and thus are more prepared to deal with the new law’s paperwork burden and other costs.
“When small businesses start, the more regulations or more laws that they have to comply with, the harder it is for a business to get its footing,” Neary said. “There’s a cost associated with this type of leave — it’s paying folks that aren’t working, so they aren’t generating goods or services.”
“For small businesses, it’s either the choice to raise prices, which hurts their competitiveness, or to hire less workers,” Neary said.
Other local laws
Only 61 percent of private-sector workers nationally have access to paid sick days through their employer, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
“The federal government is not taking action, and we hope that by taking action at the local level, that that will cascade to the national level in time, and that one day paid sick days, paid family leave, will be part of the social contract in this country,” Riemer said.
As of this month, four states and 18 cities have enacted laws or passed bills that guarantee paid sick leave for their residents, according to a report by A Better Balance, a work and family legal center.
San Francisco was the first city to enact a paid sick leave law in 2007, followed by Washington, D.C., in 2008; Seattle and Connecticut in 2012; and Portland, Jersey City, New York City and Newark in 2014. California and Massachusetts join Connecticut on July 1 as the only states to enact a statewide paid sick and safe leave.
Meanwhile, 11 states have passed “preemption” laws that prevent local jurisdictions from enacting paid sick leave laws, including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wisconsin.
In both the 2014 and 2015 Maryland state legislative session, bills that would mandate earned sick leave were introduced but not enacted. Contreras said he hopes the recent passing of the bill in Montgomery County will help improve the chances of a statewide bill passing in 2016.
“We’re not stopping at Montgomery County,” he said. “We’re going to P.G. County, we’re going statewide, so this is just where we’re getting started in Maryland — we’re not going to stop here.”