By Eliana Block
Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS–Legislation that would mandate that employers in Maryland with 10 or more workers provide them with paid sick days is under consideration this week by House and Senate committees.
Some business advocates say it will cost too much and result in wage and benefit reductions, while supporters say it’s a health and human rights issue that must be passed.
Moms and their kids in superhero costumes gathered at the Maryland State House Tuesday morning to distribute tissue boxes and petition passage of the legislation that would provide an option that more than 720,000 Marylanders don’t have, according to advocacy group MomsRising.
Morgan Meneses-Sheets said she came out with her 5-year-old daughter, Lucy, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes three years ago, to represent parents who couldn’t take off an “advocacy day,” let alone a sick day, from work. The Catonsville mother said she doesn’t know what would have happened if she couldn’t take off work to care for Lucy.
“To have that time off of work meant that we could take her to the doctor’s and learn more about her condition to get her to where she’s now healthy and thriving,” said Meneses-Sheets, a MomsRising member of three years.
The House Economic Matters Committee heard testimony on that chamber’s bill Tuesday. The Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to hear companion legislation on Thursday.
Under the bill, employees of companies with 10 or more workers would earn paid leave based on hours they’ve worked–one sick-leave hour for every 30 hours worked. Employees with nine or fewer workers would earn unpaid leave at the same rate, under the legislation.
Twenty years ago, Ericka Farrell was fired from her non-profit job of six months, after taking two weeks off to care for her son, who had chicken pox, she testified at the House committee meeting Tuesday.
“As soon as I put him in daycare he got chicken pox, he got ringworm, he got the cold, you name it, he got,” Farrell said. “Because of the excessive absences, the job let me go and I had just bought a house, a new car and I was taking care of a parent.”
She took temporary positions, with no health benefits, and grappled with the decision to forgo a day of pay whenever her kids got sick, gambling with termination. The Oxon Hill resident said she now works for the Environmental Protection Agency, which has a paid sick leave bank that employees can donate hours of unused sick leave to, for co-workers who need more than the seven-day annual allowance.
Sen. Catherine Pugh, D-Baltimore, said she sponsored the Senate bill because it makes workplaces safer by nipping infectious diseases before they spread, and because it provides victims of domestic abuse time off from work to deal with personal health and safety.
“What’s been shown is that it makes the workplace more effective and safe because you have less people getting sick,” Pugh said. “If someone comes in with the flu, first you’ve got one person out, now you’ve got five people out, so in essence I think you end up saving money as opposed to losing money.”
Even in industries where a healthy staff is critical, like health care, 83 percent of physicians reported having worked at least one time in the past year while sick, even though 95 percent said it put patients at risk, according to a 2016 report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
About 63 percent in the dining industry say they’ve prepared and served food while feeling ill, according to a 2010 report by The Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. Infected food-service workers cause 70 percent of all norovirus outbreaks, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, as many report going to work while sick because they fear job loss or can’t afford to lose income.
The Maryland Retail Association and the National Federation of Independent Businesses, represented by State Director Mike O’Halloran, opposed the bill, arguing that requiring small businesses to offer paid sick leave will result in slashed health benefits, shorter hours, wage cuts and job loss.
“As soon as you make people aware that mandating leave via legislation will most likely result in a reduction of benefits like healthcare and retirement, favorability plummets,” O’Halloran testified. “A reduction of hours offered for people to work as well as fewer jobs being available in the state had a drastic impact (on) the perception of mandated paid sick leave.”
“This bill opens employers up to additional civil action and prosecution, but if an employee is found to be misrepresenting usage of the leave they are merely disqualified from benefits for one year,” Maryland Retailers Association President Cailey Locklair Tolle said Tuesday.
To provide public employees with earned sick leave could cost state and local agencies a total well into the millions of dollars, including $430,100 to pay for the additional staff in the Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation to enforce the bill, according to the bill’s fiscal note.
And while the bill is predicted to have a meaningful effect on small businesses, Pugh said Thursday, she doesn’t think there will be much backlash. House bill sponsor Delegate Luke Clippinger, D-Baltimore said business associations are overhyping concern.
“What I think happens is we hear from people who don’t want to do this and they say the sky is falling, but the reality is when this has been put into place, the sky doesn’t fall,” Clippinger said.
If passed, Maryland would join Connecticut, California, Oregon and Massachusetts, as well as Washington, D.C., and other cities. In Vermont, paid sick leave legislation passed in the House and Senate and awaits the governor’s approval.