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“What upsets me about this legislation the most is its tone,” lobbyist Bruce Bereano said. “It indicts businesses.”

Md. businesses, advocates spar over paid sick leave

ANNAPOLIS — A revised bill mandating paid sick leave for employees in Maryland is not impressing some businesses and legislators who say such a law would hurt them more than it would help sick employees.

Advocates who favor the proposed law, which would require employers in Maryland to provide seven days of sick leave for workers, cited a growing coalition of support and called on legislators to pass the law this year.

“We worked hard to come back with a bill that was less proscriptive,” said Melissa Broome, deputy director of the Job Opportunities Task Force. “We recognize that for some there will always be philosophical differences that will prevent them from ever supporting this. We get that.”

Senate Bill 472 is the latest effort over the last decade to impose a paid sick leave mandate on Maryland businesses.

The bills has the support of groups including Broome’s coalition of more than 150 organizations, the NAACP, and labor groups including SEIU. It is opposed by business groups including the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, the Maryland Restaurant Association and the Mid-Atlantic Petroleum Dealers Association. Representatives of those organizations and others provided two hours of testimony on the bill during a hearing Thursday in the Senate Finance Committee.

Charly Carter, executive director of Maryland Working Families, called on lawmakers to adopt the measure as a way to offer some measure of financial protection to workers, especially single mothers, who are working paycheck to paycheck. She called the lack of unpaid sick leave “the common thread that when pulled can lead to financial instability.”

Two weeks ago, Vermont became the fifth state behind California, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Oregon to adopt such legislation. In Maryland, Montgomery County’s year-old law is among nearly two dozen local government laws.

But some say the law imposes mandates on businesses that go too far.

Michael O’Halloran, state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said small businesses that do not offer the benefit “do that because they cannot afford it. Mandating it will not change that fact.”

This year’s version of the bill was drafted following a series of meetings between supporters of the bill and some who opposed the effort in recent years.

Broome said many concerns expressed by some business groups were reflected in the current bill.

The bill requires businesses with 10 or more employees to offer seven days of paid sick leave. Companies with fewer employees would be required to offer the same number of days but without pay. The leave could also be used by victims of abuse, stalking and sexual assault — so-called safe leave.

Employers who provide leave of any kind that meets or exceeds the requirements of the proposal, so long as the time can also be used for sick and safe leave, would be exempt from the new law. Employers would also be allowed to let employees switch shifts at work to cover sick time, and employers would be able to pay out sick leave on the smallest increment allowed by individual payroll accounting systems. Finally, employers who opt to pay out unused earned sick leave when an employee quits do not have to reinstate additional sick leave if that employee is rehired within 12 months.

Bruce Bereano, a lobbyist representing Safeway and other businesses, said the bill takes a one-size-fits-all approach. He gave cookie cutters to lawmakers along with written testimony.

“This bill is far from ready to go,” Bereano said. “Many of the changes are cosmetic. They’re not real.”

Central to the opposition are concerns that the mandate will make it more difficult for businesses operating in Maryland. A commission created by House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. highlighted some of those challenges over the last two years.

“It’s not all because we have high taxes,” said Sen. Stephen S. Hershey Jr., R-Middle Eastern Shore and a member of the Finance Committee and the Augustine Commission. “It’s because we have in place policies that make it difficult to attract employers or get them to expand in Maryland. This bill affects our business climate.”

Broome countered that legislators needed to also consider sick employees whom she said often will go to work out of fear of losing their jobs.

“We also have to think about families and people who want to keep their jobs and pay taxes,” Broome said, adding that legislators “have to strike a careful balance” between businesses and employees.

Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles and chairman of the Finance Committee, tried to temper Hershey’s criticism.

“I wouldn’t necessarily label this as an anti-business policy,” said Middleton. “I guess it’s all how you look at it.”

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