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Can employers ask why you’re taking sick leave? That’s key in Maryland debate.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), left, at a news conference announcing an alternative proposal for requiring employers to offer paid sick leave. (Brian Witte)

The Maryland General Assembly is set to open its session this week with a fight over Gov. Larry Hogan's veto of paid sick-leave legislation. And the battle has taken unusual turns.

Hogan, a pro-business Republican, is lambasting a provision in the vetoed bill that allows businesses to ask workers who take more than two consecutive days of paid leave to verify why they need the time off.

Business pushed for the provision last year. But the governor says it undermines the privacy of workers, including victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, who under the law are entitled to "safe" leave to seek medical or legal help. Hogan is urging the Democratic-controlled legislature not to override his veto and enact the bill. He has proposed alternative paid sick-leave legislation that doesn't include the same verification provisions and could be considered during this year's 90-day session, which begins Wednesday.

Advocates for women say the protections included in the ­vetoed bill are better than the status quo and dismiss Hogan's privacy concerns as trumped-up. An official in the office of Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) said the issue could be resolved without additional legislation.

While the House of Delegates is expected to overturn the governor's veto as one of its first orders of business, the prognosis is murkier in the state Senate, where the bill passed with exactly the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.

Sen. James N. Mathias Jr. (D-Somerset), who voted for the measure last year but faces a tough bid for reelection this year in a pro-Hogan district, has wavered in recent weeks, saying he needs to carefully balance his ­relationships with fellow Democrats, his constituents and the governor. And he's taken note of Hogan's concerns about privacy.

"I want to keep talking about it," Mathias said. "It's a fair concern that's been raised. The right of women to retain confidentiality should be there, so I'll continue to think about it."

If he reverses his support for the bill, legislative leaders say they will try to flip one of the four Democratic senators who voted against the legislation in 2017.

"We should have enough votes," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert). "Quite frankly, I believe that if we started to fall short, I could prevail upon another person or two or three."

Advocates pushed for years to pass paid sick leave in Annapolis before prevailing last year. Although Hogan vetoed the bill, he is also the only sitting Republican governor to commit to some sort of paid sick leave. Eight states — Connecticut, California, Massachusetts, Oregon, Vermont, Arizona, Washington and Rhode Island — as well as smaller jurisdictions that include the District and Montgomery County, have enacted paid sick-leave laws.

The vetoed Maryland bill requires businesses with at least 15 workers to offer five paid sick days a year. Hogan's alternative proposal applies to businesses with at least 25 workers and ­phases in the mandate over three years, depending on the size of the company. It would exempt businesses that can prove a significant financial hardship.

Hogan op-ed: Give workers sick leave without killing businesses

The vetoed bill allows businesses to verify that leave is used appropriately when workers take off more than two consecutive shifts. The law allows both sick leave and "safe leave," which is time off to deal with issues such as domestic violence or assault.

Both Hogan and Republican women in the legislature say the verification provision is problematic. While Hogan mentioned the privacy issue when he vetoed the bill, his recent campaign to stop the override has focused more sharply on the importance of protecting victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Republican women, led by House Minority Whip Kathy ­Szeliga (R-Baltimore County), sent a letter to House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) and Miller in November saying that the vetoed measure "further victimizes" women dealing with abuse "by giving them no choice but to disclose deeply personal and private information."

But women's groups that supported the leave bill have played down those concerns and are pressing lawmakers to override Hogan's veto. They say that the bill would be an important step forward and that many employers would opt not to require verification before granting leave.

Lisae C. Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said the verification issue "is not a reason to delay enacting the bill, it's a tweak that legislators can look at in the future."

"Right now, we hear from victims who tell their employers that they need to take time off to go to court, to get counseling or to seek health care, and their employers tell them no," she said. "This bill means employers would have to say yes."

Del. Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City), a leading proponent of the paid sick-leave bill, said the verification provision was sought by business groups "over and over again" when the bill was debated last year. The Maryland Chamber of Commerce, which lobbies for businesses and often supports Hogan's positions, declined to comment on the issue.

Hogan feuds with Democrats over paid sick leave

In a letter to legislative leaders, General Assembly Counsel Sandra Benson Brantley said the ­vetoed bill doesn't require victims of assault or domestic violence to provide highly detailed information. The state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, she said, could limits the information employers can seek.

The House of Ruth Maryland and the Women's Law Center of Maryland said in a letter to Busch and Miller that the verification provision could actually empower victims of domestic violence.

"In many cases it is in the victim's best interest to involve their employer when a protective order is in place, so that the workplace community is able to properly react should a respondent violate the order," the letter said.

Szeliga called that line of thinking "ridiculous," adding: "It certainly makes me wonder if they're Democrats first and women's groups second."

Hogan spokeswoman Shareese Churchill noted that earlier versions of the bill supported by Democrats did not include the verification option.

"Whether they want to admit it or not, the defenders of this terrible provision know all too well that it greatly jeopardizes Maryland workers' privacy, including victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault," Churchill said. "It is disheartening to see supposed advocates for women twisting themselves in knots to defend something that is indefensible."

But paid-leave advocates said it's not controversial for employers to make sure workers aren't exploiting paid sick leave. "Privacy concerns hasn't really been an issue in other places," said Vicki Shabo, vice president of the National Partnership for Women & Families. "It seems like a way to try to provide some smoke and mirrors here to stop what should be common-sense policies."

Ellen Bravo, co-director of Family Values @ Work, said doctors or other medical professionals "should be able to say, 'I am verifying they are using this for legitimate reasons.' Certainly they don't need to reveal if a person has some confidential condition that they don't want known."