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Md. Senate gives preliminary approval to paid sick leave bill

Maryland Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) leads the Senate in a 2016 photo. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Maryland employees of companies that have 15 or more workers would be able to earn up to five days of paid sick leave under a bill that received preliminary approval from the Maryland Senate on Friday.

The full Senate reduced the number of paid leave days approved by the Senate Finance Committee last week. Under the original Senate version of the bill, employers would have been required to provide six days, or 48 hours, of sick leave each year.

The House version of the bill requires seven days.

Advocates said that despite the reduction in hours, they are thrilled that after years of proposing legislation, Maryland appears poised to become the eighth state in the country, in addition to the District, to require employers to provide the benefit.

“We are now closer than ever to making earned paid sick days a reality for hundreds of thousands of Maryland families,” said Liz Richards, director of the Working Matters coalition.

The legislation still has hurdles to clear. If it receives final Senate approval, the House and Senate will still have to reconcile differences in their bills.

And the outcome of those negotiations will affect whether Gov. Larry Hogan (R) — who has proposed his own sick-leave bill — would sign a different version if it advances in both chambers.

“As was clearly evidenced by the debate in the legislature today, this bill still has a long way to go,” Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chassé said. “We strongly encourage the Senate to adopt something much closer to the governor’s common sense proposal.”

Hogan’s bill has the same number of sick-leave days as the Senate version, but the governor’s bill applies the mandate only to companies with 50 or more employees. If the governor vetoes the measure, the Senate probably would not have enough votes to overturn it.

During a nearly three-hour debate on the Senate floor, close to 20 amendments were offered, mostly by Republicans, to lessen the impact of the bill on business owners. They included exempting businesses with 50 or fewer employees from the requirement but offering them tax credits to entice them to offer paid sick leave; and exempting seasonal workers from receiving sick days.

The tax credit idea is part of Hogan’s paid sick-leave legislation, which has not moved out of committee. It was rejected, along with all the other amendments, except for the reduction in the number of sick-leave days.

The Senate plans to consider another amendment, introduced by Sen. James Brochin (D-Baltimore County), when the bill is considered for final approval Monday.

The amendment would provide a “significant hardship” exemption for small businesses that employers could seek. Under the proposal, the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation would create rules to define a “significant hardship” and determine whether a business should be granted a waiver from the sick-leave requirement.

A couple of Democratic senators, mainly from Republican-leaning Baltimore County, offered support for the amendment.

Sen. Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County) said she was not against sick leave for workers but was concerned about the impact on mom-and-pop businesses and “putting into place a structure that is so legalistic.”

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles County), the lead sponsor of the sick-leave bill, said he would be willing to consider Brochin’s amendment but it must be “tightly worded.”

This week’s debate in the Senate was the first time, after five years of advocates pushing for paid sick leave, that a bill requiring the benefit has made it to the Senate floor.

The House passed a measure last year, but the bill died in a Senate committee.

This year, the issue became even more personal for Del. Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore), the House sponsor, after he was diagnosed with cancer.

During recent debate in the House, Clippinger, who is now in remission, expressed his desire that people have the same advantage he has to take days off from work when they are sick.