Workers in Maryland would be guaranteed seven paid sick days a year under a bill introduced Thursday in Annapolis, eliminating what advocates say is an "impossible choice" that thousands of mostly low-wage employees are forced to make between preserving their health or their jobs.
"Folks are now in a place where they have to make these impossible choices," said Del. John A. Olszewski Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat and sponsor, noting that for many people, three unpaid sick days can equal a month's worth of groceries.
But the Earned Sick and Safe Time Act — to be cross-filed in the Senate and the House of Delegates — will likely face stiff opposition from business interests, which argue that the measure would hurt employers with fewer than 50 workers. Under the bill, workers would earn one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked.
"We need to stay away from one-size-fits-all employer mandates and focus on what to do to create more jobs with good benefits," said Kathleen T. Snyder, president of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.
Many midsize and large companies have moved away from offering designated sick leave and instead offer general paid time off, and "we're not quite sure how this new law would impact those employers that have paid time off," she said.
More than 700,000 people in Maryland cannot earn paid sick days, according to Working Matters, a coalition of 65 organizations pushing for sickness benefits. Many without paid sick leave are home health care workers and restaurant employees who must work or face losing wages, workers who then end up exposing customers and patients to illness, the group said.
"We all get sick," said Melissa Broome, a senior policy advocate for the Job Opportunities Task Force, a founding member of the coalition, at a news conference Thursday. "We don't think people should have to choose between their jobs and their health."
Matt Burchell, a Baltimore resident who works as a server in an Anne Arundel County restaurant, said the money he would lose if he missed work because of illness on a Friday would mean a missed car payment, while the wages he would lose over the course of a week would equal his mortgage payment. He said he considers himself lucky that a recent ear infection hit on a Tuesday, not one of his busier days.
Airport worker Yaseen Abdul Malik, 27, who works at both Potbelly Sandwich Works and McDonald's at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, said he has been unable to schedule needed surgery on his leg because it would require a two-week recovery.
The problem extends to health in schools, said Mary Stein, a nurse in the Howard County school system.
"I have children who are sent to school ill because their parents can't stay home from work," Stein said. "Kids stay at the nurse's office because their parents can't pick them up. It's an enormous problem when kids come to school ill."
Andy Shallal, the owner of the Busboys and Poets restaurants, said it's a fallacy that the cost of such a mandate could force businesses to close. He said he has offered sick leave for full-time and part-time workers for three years, an expense that amounts to less than 1 percent of the payroll. And his business is growing, with two new locations planned.
"We are living proof the sky is not going to fall," he said.
Mandating sick leave would not only help employers protect their workers and customers from illness, it would help boost employee morale and retention, said Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, a bill sponsor and Montgomery County Democrat. Still, he said, "there are business leaders out there who will be looking to fight this legislation. We've got our work cut out."
The Maryland Chamber will likely oppose the bill, Snyder said.
"That employer has to figure out a way to pay for that time off," Snyder said. "This is a mandate, but when employers offer benefits, they have to have the sales to pay for those additional costs."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun