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Paid sick leave debate returns in Maryland General Assembly

Paid sick leave to be debated again in Annapolis. This year, there are two bills.

The debate over whether to require Maryland companies to offer workers paid sick leave began anew Monday with a rally for legislation being considered by the General Assembly.

The gathering in Annapolis, organized by proponents of paid sick leave, was the first public display of support during this legislative session for a policy state lawmakers have debated for four years.

Employee advocates have pushed the legislature to pass a sick-leave bill, saying ill workers need the flexibility to stay home without the fear of losing pay or their job.

Last year, the House of Delegates passed a paid sick-leave bill, but it died in the state Senate on the final day of the legislature's 90-day session.

"We are not going to stop until working families across Maryland have this security," said Liz Richards, head of Working Matters, a coalition of more than 150 groups supporting paid sick leave.

Democrats who are again sponsoring legislation will be joined in the debate by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who has proposed his own version of a sick-leave requirement.

Opponents are already pushing back. Mike O'Halloran, state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said requiring companies to offer paid leave to sick workers doesn't mean they can afford it. The businesses that can afford it already have such policies, he said.

Under the bill backed by Working Matters and sponsored by Democrats, companies with at least 15 workers would be required to allow them to earn paid sick leave at a rate of one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours worked. The formula would apply to any employee who works at least eight hours each week.

Companies with fewer than 15 employees would have to allow their sick workers to take unpaid time off.

Democratic leaders in the General Assembly have deemed the bill a priority. They designated it House Bill 1 — an indication of its status.

"We're trying to help people who, more often than not, are at the bottom of the income ladder," said Del. Luke Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat who is the bill's lead sponsor in the House.

Sen. Thomas "Mac" Middleton, a Charles County Democrat, is leading the effort in the Senate, where just more than half of senators are co-sponsoring the bill.

Hogan outlined key features of his proposal in early December.

The governor would require employers with 50 workers to offer up to five days of paid sick leave. The requirement would apply to employees who work 30 hours or more per week. He said the 50-employee threshold fit the federal definition of a small business.

Smaller employers would be eligible for tax deductions of up to $20,000 per year for offering paid sick time.

Hogan called his proposal "fair, balanced, common-sense and bipartisan."

The tax breaks Hogan proposes would cost the state up to $63 million a year, aides said. The Democrats' bill would cost the state about $400,000 a year — the expected cost of investigating employers accused of violating the law.

Hogan's office says 400,000 workers could gain sick-leave coverage under his proposal, but workers' advocates say his plan doesn't help enough workers.

"It would leave far too many people behind, including a lot of the families who need this the most: people who are working part time, restaurant workers," Richards said. "A lot of those people, as we understand it, are the people he would not be including in the bill."

O'Halloran said his members have trouble anytime the government mandates they provide a benefit.

"Whether it's 50 or 15, employers believe it should be left to them and their employees to determine what they can afford," he said.

Companies that don't have a cushion to offer paid sick leave may have to make tough decisions if a law is passed, he said.

"They have very few options to do it. They have to cut hours or, God forbid, they have to let employees go," O'Halloran said.

The governor's involvement raises the profile of the sick-leave issue, but it's not clear how Hogan will affect the prospects of either bill or a compromise between the two.

Clippinger said he's willing to hear out opponents but noted he's already made concessions. Last year's bill initially required companies with at least 10 employees to offer paid leave, and he agreed to change that threshold to 15 this year.

"I think we've got a really good product," he said.

Richards, from Working Matters, said the coalition is focused on promoting its bill, not examining alternatives.

"We have a strong bill already," she said. "We are focused on that bill."

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

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