Many business owners in Maryland are scrambling to prepare for the state’s new sick-leave policy, which takes effect Sunday despite a veto last year from Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and a last-ditch attempt by the state Senate to delay it.
Some business owners say they don’t know whether their employees qualify for the benefit, or wonder if their existing plans comply with the requirements. Others are concerned about a perceived lack of guidance from the state, or what will happen if they make an honest mistake.
“I haven’t received any mailings about it, or any information at all,” said Tom Kunkel, who runs a Harford County-based marketing and printing company that employs about 20 people. “There’s still a ton of questions I have.”
The law requires businesses with at least 15 employees to provide up to five days of paid leave each year for workers to deal with illness or issues such as domestic violence, assault or stalking. Exemptions apply to a long list of employees, including those who regularly work less than 12 hours a week, independent contractors, real estate brokers, construction workers covered by union contracts and anyone under the age of 18.
On Monday, the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation sent out basic guidance to about 210,000 people, including business owners who have participated in work groups on the issue or contacted the agency with questions.
The Hogan administration, which has pushed for changes in the law and supported an effort to delay implementation until summer, said it plans to release enforcement guidelines within the next few weeks, after which it will take comment from the public and possibly develop official regulations, a process not required by the statute.
The five-person Office of Small Business Regulatory Assistance, which Hogan created in mid-January in response to the legislation, had received more than 600 emails about the new law as of Friday, according to the labor department.
According to the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University, more than 107,000 Maryland businesses — 78 percent of businesses in the state — had 15 or more employees in 2015.
State legislative analysts have estimated that 64 percent of Maryland employees already receive paid sick leave but that nearly 700,000 residents who don’t will be eligible for the benefit under the law.
Some business owners are enthusiastic about the sick-leave requirement.
Ed Snodgrass, who operates a Harford County wholesale nursery that employs about 17 people during its peak season, said that the mandate is a matter of social justice and that it won’t cause him much burden.
“There will be more time spent making coffee than keeping track of how many hours of paid leave someone has earned,” he said. “We do more complicated things than that.”
But other business owners say they are confused about how to adhere to the law — or whether they even have to. They’re asking, among other questions, whether minors and workers located out of state count toward their total number of employees (out-of-state employees do not count, but minors do), and how the state defines “regularly” for determining whether a person works enough hours to qualify for the benefit.
Administration officials do not have an answer for how to define “regularly.” Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said the bill’s sponsors “failed to address these issues in the legislation they passed,” and the Labor Department is “working extremely hard to bring clarity to this flawed law.”
Montgomery and Prince George’s counties also have laws requiring paid sick leave. But employers may still be figuring out whether the state law adds any new requirements, or how to track which law to apply if they have employees working in multiple counties.
“This is coming so fast, and the state has not issued regulations yet, so we’re not sure how all the differences shake out,” said Jane Redicker, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce.
Some business owners have complained that they’ll have to hire accountants, lawyers and human-resources specialists to help them determine how much sick leave their employees have earned. James Eaton, principal at the regional accounting firm KatzAbosch, said employers could make things easier on themselves by providing the maximum 40 hours of paid sick leave up front, eliminating the need to track how much each worker has accrued.
“You could just give them the whole hog on the first of year, so you don’t have to do the arithmetic every pay period,” Eaton said.
Critics of the governor say the Hogan administration had ample time to prepare guidance for the law and to seek answers to any questions about the intent of specific provisions, noting that enactment of the measure was nearly certain after the legislature passed it with veto-proof majorities last year.
“They could have laid the groundwork, but they didn’t pay attention to the number of votes on the board,” said Del. Luke Clippinger (D-Baltimore City), who sponsored the bill.
Maryland Labor Secretary Kelly M. Schulz said it would not make sense to prepare to implement a bill that the governor had vetoed, especially because it was not clear until the last minute that Senate Democrats had enough votes for an override.
“We don’t draft regulations and policy based on assumptions that a bill will pass,” Schulz said.
The legislature overrode Hogan’s veto on Jan. 12, launching a 30-day window until the statute would be implemented. But the Senate voted last week to push the effective date of the law to July 1, hoping to give companies more time to prepare for it. That proposal appears likely to die in the more liberal House, however.
House Economic Matters Chair Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), whose committee will decide whether the delay plan moves forward in that chamber, called the proposal “dead on arrival,” adding that “we’re moving on to the rest of the state’s business.”
He and other key Democratic lawmakers have said state officials can address concerns about the sick-leave bill, including potential privacy issues, through regulations, rather than legislative action.
Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.