A bill that would mandate paid sick leave for Maryland businesses with 10 or more employees drew strong support and criticism Tuesday during a Senate Finance Committee hearing.
Advocates said the legislation, sponsored by Sen. Catherine E. Pugh (D-Baltimore), would help employers by allowing their workers to stay home while ill, preventing the spread of disease and getting them back on the job faster. About 40 percent of private-sector workers — or more than 700,000 Marylanders — lack paid sick leave, according to the advocacy group Working Matters.
“It’s more than a labor issue; it’s a health issue,” said Xaviour Walker, a physician at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Paid sick leave is preventative medicine.”
Opponents of the bill say it would add to the already considerable cost of doing business in Maryland, an issue that Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has repeatedly vowed to address.
Shelby Skeabeck, a lawyer who defends employers in work-related matters, said the provisions would cost businesses “thousands of dollars” when they are still reeling from the recession, adjusting to the requirements of the Affordable Care Act and implementing recent increases in the minimum wage. “In short, the bill is anti-business,” Skeabeck said.
Pugh, the bill’s sponsor, opened the hearing by playing a video of interviews with individuals — most of them women and mothers — who would benefit from paid sick leave. Pugh, who is on the Finance Committee, said its members are open to working with the business community to refine the bill’s language to make it “more palatable.”
“This legislation is really about fairness,” Pugh said. “It’s about fairness in the workplace and a healthier work environment.”
Pugh sat with first lady Michelle Obama at last month’s State of the Union address, where President Obama endorsed the idea of mandatory paid sick leave. Her bill would require businesses with 10 or more employees to provide one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. The employee could earn up to a week of paid sick leave per year. Smaller companies with fewer workers — about 75 percent of the state’s private businesses, advocates say — would have to provide unpaid leave.
Previous efforts to pass such a bill have failed in the Maryland legislature, and Hogan’s arrival in Annapolis suggests it could face an even steeper path to becoming law.
Critics say the measure would unfairly burden companies by requiring them to report to the state the number of people they employ. The businesses could face fines or other civil actions for not giving the required amount of leave.
Leonardo McClarty, president of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce, said many companies already offer adequate benefit packages. “One size does not fit all,” he said.
Senate Bill 40 would allow workers to use sick leave to care for an ill family member or to seek legal or counseling services related to domestic violence or sexual assault, which drew opposition from some Finance Committee members.
“We are putting the employers in a position where they have to pay for people to not be at work for a variety of reasons other than being sick,” said Sen. Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R-Queen Anne’s). “What is the funding source for this?”
When North Baltimore cafe owner Amanda Rothschild testified that offering paid sick leave to her employees had saved her money and led to lower turnover, Hershey pointed out that she had made the decision to do so on her own. “Isn’t that somewhat of a competitive advantage for if you believe this is the right thing to do?” Hershey asked. “Then why is legislation necessary?”
Sen. Joanne Benson (D-Prince George’s), a former educator, said the bill is needed because too many employers lack compassion for their workers. She asked “anyone who had the nerve” among the opponents how they would handle a situation in which a mother had no choice but to send a sick child to school because she could not take off work to care for the child.
Deriece Pate Bennett of the state Chamber of Commerce chose her words carefully. “Our issue is the state mandate,” she said.
Megan Sennett, a single mother from Annapolis, testified that she worked three part-time jobs despite being sick in order to support her daughters. Before long, she was sent to the emergency room with a kidney infection.
“The doctor told me I needed to take off 10 days,” said Sennett, 41. “My heart sank because I didn’t know how I would afford it.” It took two months for her to recover financially, she said.
Joe Parsley, owner of a Frederick gas station and car wash, said he is not opposed to working an overnight shift at his 24-hour business to cover for an employee in a bind. If enacted, Parsley calculated, mandatory sick leave would cost him about $8,800 a year.
“I don’t have money growing on trees,” he said. “I take care of my employees. Why doesn’t the government just leave me the hell alone?”