ANNAPOLIS — Paid sick leave legislation could become reality in Maryland under a compromise proposal being hammered out between legislators and supporters and opponents of the measure.
Word of the compromise comes weeks before the General Assembly reconvenes in January and signals that business groups who once opposed such laws are recognizing that paid sick leave legislation is likely to happen with or without their input.
“I don’t think we’re so far away from getting it done,” said Sen. Thomas V. “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. “We’re going to keep plugging away at it.”
Middleton, who is expected to take the lead in the Senate on paid sick leave legislation that has failed in each of the last three sessions, has been meeting since the end of the 2016 session with supporters and opponents of the proposal in an attempt to work out a consensus. The southern Maryland senator said he plans to whittle the larger number of groups he’s been meeting with to less than six supporters and opponents before drafting a proposal for introduction in January.
“You just can’t reach a consensus when dealing with that many people,” Middleton said.
Middleton plans to use the 2016 legislation passed in the final days of the session as the skeleton of his bill next year.
“It’s going to take a lot of give and take on both sides,” Middleton said.
The bill that failed in 2016 required businesses with 14 or more employees to allow workers who regularly work eight hours a week or more to earn up to 80 hours of paid leave after their first 90 days on the job. Workers could carry over 56 hours of that leave but could only accrue a total of 80 hours in any year.
The House passed the bill 84-54, just short of a veto-proof majority, but it failed to get out of the Senate. Its fate in the waning hours of the session was tied to a Senate bill that expanded tax credits for low-income earners but also gave tax breaks to middle- and high-income earners. An amendment in the House of Delegates that added tax increases to corporations killed that bill and took down with it the paid sick leave bill desired by House lawmakers.
Middleton said using the House version that passed last year could mean lawmakers could push a final bill through much earlier in the 2017 session.
Elisabeth Sachs, executive director of the Baltimore-based Job Opportunities Task Force, was not immediately available for comment.
The organization is a major supporter of paid sick leave legislation.
Opponents of the law, mostly small-business groups, said at the time that the mandate was onerous to small businesses at a time when the state was trying to shake that negative perception.
Middleton said he plans on introducing some tweaks to the bill that include allowing companies that already offer paid time off that can be used for either vacation or sick leave to use that to meet the requirements. Middleton even suggested the possibility of reducing the number of paid days required and providing protections for employees who must use additional unpaid leave.
Additionally, he said, he is considering language that would prohibit local governments from enacting their own paid sick leave laws in the future.
“I would be supportive of state pre-emption provided we pass paid sick leave,” Middleton said. “It’s not in the state’s best interest to have a hodgepodge of local laws on these policy issues.
Business groups involved in the discussion appear more willing to discuss the legislation.
Bruce Bereano, a lobbyist representing unionized construction companies that already have paid sick leave negotiated as part of their contracts, said opponents are coming to accept the likelihood that the state will pass sick leave legislation and are working to have input before the bill is passed. The lobbyist said any law on sick leave must be flexible.
“(Middleton) is trying to forge a consensus,” Bereano said. “The more and more this legislature discusses this issue the more they see its complexity. Businesses are profoundly different from each other.”
Also in play is a possible bill that would pre-empt local governments from enacting laws regarding minimum wage, paid sick and maternity leave and possibly other labor issues.
Montgomery County and Prince George’s each have enacted minimum wage laws that are different from the state. Montgomery County also has earned sick leave legislation.
In Prince George’s County, minimum wage increases that are higher than those passed by the state have already become an issue when it comes to reimbursing providers of services to the developmentally disabled because the state does not reimburse based on the county wage.
Bereano said language pre-empting local governments would “go a long way to try to bring people together.”
Sources familiar with discussions about the bill say the proposal would prohibit local governments from enacting future laws on minimum wage and on paid leave. The bill, as currently discussed, would not likely roll back or eliminate laws already enacted, such as those in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
Middleton said he would be willing to consider such legislation to prevent a myriad of different laws in the state’s 24 jurisdictions, but he linked the fate of any such bill to that of the paid sick leave measure.
Baltimore City this year considered but failed to pass minimum wage legislation. That bill is expected to return sometime after the new council is sworn in this month.
At least one city official — Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young — would prefer the state settle the issue rather than have the city enact its own law.
“He’s been clear from the beginning that the best way forward for Baltimore is for the state to resolve this issue,” said Lester Davis, a Young spokesman.
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