As Maryland regulators and businesses scramble over new paid sick leave law, delegates block push to delay

Less than two weeks before a new law allows thousands of part-time workers across Maryland to start accruing paid sick leave, an effort to give confused business owners more time to prepare appears to have hit a dead end.

Companies will be required to start tracking the time off their employees earn when the law takes effect Feb. 11, a month after the General Assembly overrode Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto last year. But no regulations will be in place to guide businesses in complying — and the Hogan administration, as it continues pushing the legislature to overhaul the sick leave policy, says they won’t be in place for months.

Democratic Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton of Charles County proposed last month pushing that effective date out by two months, a move business groups say would be welcome, if not enough. Middleton has the support of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and Hogan, who hopes to go farther and replace the new policy with his own Paid Leave Compromise Act of 2018.

But House Democrats who shepherded the legislation though a six-year battle, including Speaker Michael E. Busch, say a compromise already has been reached, and that bill has become law. Baltimore Del. Luke H. Clippinger, lead sponsor of the legislation, said the Hogan administration had nine months to plan for the possibility of a veto override.

“We’re done,” Clippinger said. “He’s the governor of the state of Maryland. This is a law on the books. That’s not good governance.”

Kelly M. Schulz, secretary of the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, said her staff is working through the implications of the law as it’s written, but that state lawyers told her it would be a first for an agency to prepare draft regulations before a bill becomes law, or while there is still a chance for legislative action.

The rejection of Hogan’s veto in the Senate was uncertain until the override succeeded by a one-vote margin Jan. 12, and his legislation remains pending, though no hearings on it have been scheduled.

Hogan’s spokesman, Doug Mayer, questioned any suggestion that the administration has fallen short of its duties. He suggested the assembly could have moved its sick leave bill earlier during its 2017 legislative session to avoid the crunch that businesses are now facing.

“Which bills do they want us to start implementing before they become law?” he asked. “If you do that for one law, should you do that for all the laws?”

The new sick leave law will allow employees of companies with at least 15 employees to earn one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked, entitling them to as many as five paid days off. Proponents say it would benefit about 700,000 Marylanders.

Businesses and their advocates fought the measure as too rigid, burdensome and complicated. Hogan has called it “deeply flawed, job-killing” legislation.

Now that the policy’s implementation is imminent, though, business groups say they just need more time. Cailey Locklair Tolle, president of the Maryland Retailers Association, said her members, who rely heavily on part-time labor, are frazzled.

“I have companies calling me, asking me, ‘Is there anything we can do, or do we need to get IT experts in today to fix our software systems?’ ” she said at a hearing on Middleton’s bill in late January. “We’re advising members, you need to be ready to go by Feb. 11.”

Chris Costello, a lobbyist representing the Howard County Chamber of Commerce, told lawmakers the challenge for employers won’t be offering leave, but doing it in a way that they are confident is legal.

“It’s a complex way of providing leave,” he said. “Even the best employer with the best of intentions I don’t think is going to be in compliance with this law.”

The Maryland Motor Truck Association has been distributing the details of the legislation to its members since last spring, even as it seemed possible that the legislature would sustain the governor’s veto, said Louis Campion, the group’s president.

Its literature explains that employers can retain existing time off policies if they accrue at least at the 1-hour-per-30-hours rate and the time can be used for all of the purposes required under the law, including medical care, a family member’s care, maternity or paternity leave, or any services related to domestic violence or sexual assault.

Campion said he is advising members that if they are unsure whether they will be caught on the wrong side of the law to simply give existing employees five paid days off at the start of every year, and to give new hires a pro-rated fraction of that based on when they start.

“We’re trying to make it as easy as possible,” he said.

Middleton and Miller are among those echoing businesses’ concerns.

Miller called it “imperative” that the policy change be delayed, and suggested that after such a long battle over the issue, the House of Delegates is “taking the easy way out” to protect its legislative victory.

“They’re just reluctant to open up the bill,” Miller said. “The least we can do is give them time to adjust.”

Mayer said the governor’s office indeed sees an opportunity, calling Middleton’s bill “a great opening to continue the conversation of making this law less burdensome to Maryland’s job creators and employees.”

But Middleton said that is not his intention. He said he hopes to advance a bill through the Senate that solely changes the law’s effective date, allaying fears of renewed debate in the House and encouraging delegates to follow suit.

“If we get it through, maybe they’ll want to follow,” he said.

Busch said he does not foresee any "groundswell of support” in the House. Assuming the new law goes into effect as expected Feb. 11, employees would not be allowed to take any of their accrued leave until late May, “plenty of time for the [labor] department and the businesses affected to make the necessary changes,” he said.

Del. Dereck E. Davis, a Prince George’s County Democrat who chairs the committee that would consider Middleton’s bill, was equally unmotivated to step in. He said there has been plenty of time to prepare for the change.

“I certainly hope no one sat around that would be impacted by this and did not prep and made certain assumptions,” he said.

“I think we’ve just reached a point now where we’re at the end of the legislative process,” Davis said. “It’s the law of the land; we need to accept that and move on.”

sdance@baltsun.com

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