A proposal to mandate paid sick leave died in a Prince George’s County Council committee Tuesday after an emotional debate that pitted the needs of workers against what officials described as the county’s fragile economic health.
While proponents of the bill stressed the importance of paid time off, especially for low-wage employees who are ill or have children who are sick, opponents said the benefit — already on the books in neighboring Montgomery County and the District — would place an undue burden on business owners.
“We don’t want to see businesses choosing other counties in the state because we have a requirement they don’t have,” said the council chairman, Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro), who along with County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) is pushing for state lawmakers to adopt a sick-leave bill so the county doesn’t have to.
But former state delegate Jolene Ivey (D), who testified in support of the county proposal, said past attempts to mandate sick leave statewide “went nowhere.” If legislation passes in 2016, she added, there is no guarantee that Republican Gov. Larry Hogan — who is working to make Maryland more business-friendly — would sign it.
“Our citizens are sick of waiting,” Ivey said. She and Franklin are both planning to run for county executive in 2018, when Baker must step down because of term limits.
About two dozen people testified during the two-hour hearing, which was shortened when a fire alarm was triggered, causing a brief evacuation.
Representatives from the restaurant, grocery and hospitality industries said the proposal would force their businesses — restaurants in particular — to hire replacement workers and pay twice for the same work, leaving them at a competitive disadvantage.
Advocates argued that whatever disadvantage might arise would be mitigated by making Prince George’s a more attractive place to work, noting that the majority of county residents work in other jurisdictions.
“We want to make sure these are jobs people want to have,” said council member Deni Taveras (D-Adelphi), who supported the legislation.
She recalled having worked low-wage jobs without sick leave and said many of the people who live in her district are in the same situation. “I am the people I represent.”
Union leaders and progressive advocacy groups called sick leave a “moral issue,” and at least one business owner broke with the rest to support the bill.
“There will be costs associated with this. But this is a cost we are willing to pay because it is a human rights issue,” Lya Wesley Britt of the local restaurant KBQ Real Barbeque said.
In the end, the only members of the council’s Planning, Zoning and Economic Development Committee who supported the legislation were Taveras and Karen R. Toles (D-Suitland), both co-sponsors of the bill.
Other members of the committee said they supported paid sick leave in theory but wanted more information or believed the issue should be left to the state.
“There are a lot of unresolved questions,” said council member Dannielle M. Glaros (D-Riverdale Park), noting that the bill lacked a fiscal analysis and information about different classes of workers that would be affected.
She and council member Derrick Leon Davis (D-Mitchellville) voted against sending the bill to the full council. So did the committee chair, Andrea C. Harrison (D-Springdale), who said she couldn’t “support the bill as written.”
Toles and Taveras, visibly frustrated, tried to save the bill by asking their colleagues whether they would consider moving it forward with an “unfavorable” recommendation so that a public hearing could take place.
That too failed. The measure was tabled — effectively killing the bill until the next legislative session begins in January.
The enthusiasm in the cramped hearing room evaporated as bill supporters exited swiftly and quietly.
“We’re going to keep on working to advance the cause at the state level,” said Larry Stafford, executive director of Progressive Maryland, a liberal advocacy group. “This was Prince George’s County’s opportunity to take the lead, and they chose not to.”
The bill’s main sponsor, council member Mary A. Lehman (D-Laurel), retreated to the main council room two floors down and sat at the dais alone, visibly miffed.
“I’m very disappointed,” Lehman said. “We’re not giving up.”