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Politics

Paid Sick Leave Bill Gets Hearing In Annapolis Today

Last fall, when Megan Sennett started feeling fatigued and sore, she wrote off the symptoms. The single mom with three daughters and three jobs didn’t have the time to go to the doctor and she figured it was probably exhaustion from her busy schedule as a fitness trainer, restaurant server and freelance writer.

“I was ignoring signs that I was getting sick, and apparently I had a urinary tract infection that progressed quite quickly into a kidney infection and it threw me into the emergency room almost immediately,” Sennett said.

Between hospital tests and seven days of bed rest, it cost Sennett a lot to not see a doctor. And it left her panicking in the hospital about taking the time off from work to recover because she doesn’t have paid sick leave. Not going to work means not getting paid, so for Sennett, who made less than $30,000 last year, time off isn’t often a viable option.

On Tuesday, Maryland’s Senate Finance Committee will hold a hearing on a bill that would require businesses to offer sick leave to their workers. The Maryland Healthy Working Families Act would let workers earn an hour of sick leave for every thirty hours worked, up to seven sick days a year. In businesses with ten or more employees, it’s paid leave. In smaller workplaces, it’s unpaid, but workers can’t be fired for taking the time off.

Broome says the bill would mean more productive workers and healthier workplaces. More than 720-thousand Marylanders don’t have access to paid sick leave, about 40 percent of the state’s workers. Among part-time and low-wage workers, the numbers are much higher, says Melissa Broome, who heads the Job Opportunities Task Force, a part of the Working Matters coalition that backs the bill.

“We’re all going to get sick at some point. We’ll get sick, our kids will get sick; this bill is about making sure that people can take the time off they need to care for themselves, to care for their family and not lose out on wages or in some cases their jobs,” says Melissa Broome.

Broome says polling shows majorities of both Democratic and Republican voters support paid sick leave, and that the legislation should lead to healthier workplaces and more productive workers.

“It’s good for a business to say to sick workers ‘stay home, stay where you belong’ because we don’t want to spread [illness] around the workplace, that’s only going to cost me more money” Broome said. “When you think about the food service industry, that is the last place any of us want sick people coming into work.”

But Jessica Cooper from the National Federation of Independent Businesses says it’s not so simple. She says, if passed, the legislation could force employers to offer fewer benefits, staff fewer hours or cut the number of workers to adjust to the added costs. “It’s well intended legislation but it has negative consequences,” Cooper said.

For the 70 percent of Maryland businesses with fewer than ten employees, Cooper worries the requirement could hinder growth. “It’s a huge disincentive to hire that tenth employee because that tenth employee is going to be the most expensive employee you have,” Cooper says.

Connecticut, California and Massachusetts all have paid sick leave laws. So does San Francisco, Washington DC and Seattle.  

“I think the conclusion in looking at states and cities that have enacted paid sick leave laws is that  it’s had a modest impact on businesses and the economy,” says Elizabeth Kennedy, who researches labor and leave laws at Loyola University Maryland’s Sellinger School of Business.

She says in Connecticut, when businesses were surveyed after the implementation of the laws, Kennedy says they were mostly supportive or neutral on the legislation. She says the modest impact could be because sectors that already offer paid sick leave at high rates had little need to expand. In sectors low-wage sectors like home healthcare and hospitality, where the burden of paid sick leave requirements is higher, the “level playing field” on which businesses compete while still offering the benefit. Also, research shows workers don’t typically use the full amount of sick leave they have available, Kennedy says.

“They view this type of benefit as an insurance policy, one that they don’t want to use without a good reason because there’s only a finite number of days,” Kennedy says. “So they tend to only use this leave when it is absolutely necessary.”

This is the third year that the legislation has been introduced in Annapolis. Last year, advocates say, it was put on the backburner in favor of a minimum wage hike. It may have a good chance to make it out of committee for the first time, but still has to win majorities in both chambers and passed the desk of a governor who ran on a pro-business platform. Gov. Larry Hogan isn’t commenting on the legislation.