Vivienne Martin Mulkey, 61/2 years old, was on a mission to meet lawmakers when the steep steps of the State House gave her pause: "Whoa!"
Then she and a coterie of girls wearing superhero capes scampered up the steps into the building, where they and their mothers lobbied for a bill requiring employers to provide workers with paid sick leave.
The group wanted to encourage lawmakers to use their "superhero powers" to pass the bill, and the girls passed out storybooks, decks of cards and boxes of tissues with that message.
Advocates for paid sick leave think the legislation might be successful this year — their fourth attempt in Annapolis — not only because of the pint-sized lobbyists they have on their side, but because the bill's co-sponsors represent a majority of both the House of Delegates and state Senate.
"Support has just exploded for this," said Melissa Broome, deputy director of the Jobs Opportunities Task Force, a Baltimore nonprofit that advocates for low-income workers.
The task force is among more than 100 groups that are part of the Working Matters coalition, which is pushing for the bill. The legislation is opposed by the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the Restaurant Association of Maryland and other business groups.
The proposal would require an employer with 10 or more employees to allow the workers to earn at least one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked — up to seven days per year.
Companies with fewer employees would be required to offer the same amount of sick time, but it would be unpaid.
The sick leave could be used when the worker is sick, caring for a sick family member or dealing with domestic violence or sexual assault issues.
Supporters of the bill say it promotes public health because sick employees won't show up to work and infect co-workers and customers. And they say the cost of providing the benefit to workers is offset by the savings in health care costs, because workers are more likely to go to the doctor as soon as they have a medical issue, instead of waiting until an illness worsens.
But opponents say the bill represents an expensive mandate to employers that could sink some small businesses.
Employers that don't offer sick time don't offer it because they can't afford to, said Mike O'Halloran, state director for the NFIB.
"Mandating it will not change this fact," he told lawmakers Tuesday afternoon.
The NFIB estimated that the bill would cause the loss of 8,500 jobs and $1 billion of economic activity over the next 10 years.
The nonpartisan state Department of Legislative Services, which analyzes bills for lawmakers, estimated the impact on businesses would be $419 per employee.
The impact is expected to be most severe on companies in the service industry, such as restaurants, and those with low-wage workers. Currently, 39 percent of service industry workers and 31 percent of low-wage workers have paid sick leave, according to state analysts. Overall, 61 percent of workers for private companies and 90 percent of government employees have paid sick leave, the analysts found.
David J. Norman, CEO of Crofton-based DavCo, which runs Wendy's restaurants, said the paid sick leave bill is "complicated and frankly disastrous" for fast-food companies. He said fast food employs young people, ex-offenders and immigrants, offering them their critical first jobs.
"We are the ultimate entry-level employer," he told lawmakers.
Legislators also heard from lobbyist Bruce Bereano, who handed out bunny-shaped cookie cutters to underscore that the bill is "cookie cutter legislation" that won't work in Maryland. Bereano, who represents Safeway and other businesses, called the bill "grossly unfair to businesses" and "cockamamie."
The bill has failed the past three years, but this year, Del. Dereck Davis, who chairs the House Economic Matters Committee, is co-sponsoring the bill — a key point of progress for advocates.
The superhero kids and their moms ran down Davis in an Annapolis office building on Tuesday to thank him.
"You look great! These are some great outfits," said Davis, high-fiving the girls. The Prince George's County Democrat promised to pass "the best possible bill" for sick leave.
"This is a bill whose time has come," he said.
Though the bill has the support of more than half of the House of Delegates and the state Senate, advocates are working to get majority support in the committees that must approve the bill first. They have 10 sponsors among the 23 members of the House Economic Matters Committee and five sponsors among the 11 members of the Senate Finance Committee, which will hold a hearing for the bill on Thursday.
In Maryland, only Montgomery County has a paid sick leave law. Prince George's County considered a sick leave bill last year that died in a County Council committee.
Elsewhere, paid sick leave laws are in place in California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, D.C., Seattle, New York City and other cities. Vermont's legislature recently approved a paid sick leave bill, which that state's governor is expected to sign.