ANNAPOLIS — Committees in both the House and the Senate heard legislation this week that would require many employers in Maryland to grant workers at least one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. The proposal, which has so far received backing from 66 delegates and 19 senators, would make Maryland just the second state in the nation to mandate that private sector businesses provide paid sick days to workers.
Sen. Catherine Pugh, D-Baltimore, called on members of the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday to support the Maryland Earned Sick and Safe Leave Act. She cited research that showed the measure would benefit more than 700,000 Maryland workers who are currently without paid sick leave and can miss out on income and risk losing their job when they or a family member become ill.
“Without sick leave, people are forced into making impossible choices between going to work and taking care of themselves and their families,” Pugh said, citing analysis by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “The bill before us seeks to alleviate that problem.”
Under the bill, businesses with more than nine employees would be required to let workers earn up to 56 hours of paid sick leave per year and use up to 10 days a year. Small businesses with fewer than 10 employees would have to provide unpaid sick leave under the same standards.
Employees could use the time to recover from an illness — physical or mental — or an injury, care for a sick or injured family member, attend doctor’s appointments and obtain other preventative care services for themselves and their families. The “safe leave” portion of the bill also permits workers to use their sick time in cases of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking.
Richard Turnage, who works as a cook at a sports bar in Charles County, was one of a handful of workers from the restaurant industry to testify in support of the bill, urging lawmakers to consider the health of both employees and customers.
Turnage, who does not have paid sick leave, said he was unable to take off work this winter when he and several colleagues became sick.
“Missing a day of work is a direct hit to my budget,” Turnage said. “I am a father, and not going to work means I can’t buy groceries or provide other essentials for my son.”
Turnage said not one employee could “afford a day off to get well” after the virus had spread among the staff.
“I took measures to make sure I kept sanitary contact with food, but with … ill [waiters] and kitchen staff, I am sure some customers were affected,” he said.
In Maryland, 110 organization have joined the Working Matters coalition, the force helping to drive the movement in the state.
Melissa Broome, senior policy advocate at Job Opportunities Task Force/Working Matters, said there is an “overwhelming amount of support in our state for this legislation.”
The momentum that Broome said the movement has been gaining comes as support for paid sick leave legislation appears to be spreading across the nation. While only Connecticut has a statewide law mandating paid sick days, five major cities and Washington, D.C., have adopted similar measures, four of which passed within the last year.
But last session, similar Maryland bills failed to make it out of committee in either the Senate or the House. In hearings this week, both Pugh and Delegate John Olszewski, Jr., D-Baltimore, who is sponsoring the measure in the House, drew attention to the differences between last year’s bill and this one.
In addition to the exemption that now exists for small businesses, who would be required to provide only unpaid sick days, businesses of all sizes would not have to provide paid sick leave for employees who work fewer than 8 hours a week.
Olszewski also said employers would be allowed to require documentation from employees who use earned sick time for more than two consecutive shifts to confirm that leave was used appropriately, and that shift-swapping can be used as an alternative to paid sick days, with mutual consent from the worker and the employer.
But some opponents of the legislation argue that this year’s version is still too broad and too vague in many places, including the area that defines a “family member,” or a person an employee could use sick leave to care for. Many who testified against the bill also said that the measure would hurt businesses struggling to stay afloat in a still-sluggish economy.
“Employers do care about the well being of their employees and want them to be healthy and productive,” said Deriece Pate Bennett, vice president for government affairs at the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. “But the reality is that a vast majority of businesses already provide some form of leave for their employees, whether it’s flex leave, unpaid leave, annual leave or paid time off, and those [employers] who do not use it, cannot afford it.”