State lawmakers are gearing up for a fight over paid sick leave, as a nationwide campaign highlighted by President Barack Obama during his recent visit to Baltimore gains a hearing in Annapolis.

Advocates began calling on the state two years ago to require businesses to offer paid sick leave for workers, following the example of Connecticut, Massachusetts and California, as well as a number of cities, including New York and San Francisco. The policies are opposed by many business groups, who say they are too costly and overreaching, especially for small firms.

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Previous efforts in Maryland stalled as other labor issues — such as increasing the minimum wage — took precedence, state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh said Monday at a legislative preview hosted by the Greater Baltimore Committee. But Pugh, who sat with first lady Michelle Obama at the president's State of the Union speech last week in recognition of her work on the issue, said she is optimistic the bill will move further this year.

"It's still being negotiated, but that's one of the things I'm looking at," said Pugh, a Baltimore Democrat and Senate majority leader. "We know we probably do have the votes to pass, but we also want to make sure this administration gets off to a great start and that we are cooperating with each other."

While paid sick leave might be a popular issue for Democrats, it is decidely not among business groups, a key constituency for Larry Hogan, Maryland's new Republican governor, who campaigned on a pledge to make the state more business-friendly.

A spokeswoman for Hogan declined to say whether the governor would support a bill that required businesses to offer paid sick leave.

"We are in the very beginning of a long legislative session, and as we all know, bills have the tendency to look much different by the time April comes around," spokeswoman Erin Montgomery said in a statement. "The Governor and his staff will be monitoring countless pieces of legislation as this session plays out over the next several months."

Maryland currently does not require employers to provide paid sick leave. More than 400,000 workers in the state do not receive paid time off of any kind, according to a 2013 study by the Institute for Women's Policy Research, a nonprofit focused on women's issues.

Nationwide about 74 percent of full-time, private-sector workers have access to paid sick leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That shrinks to 50 percent among among businesses with fewer than 50 workers.

"We've been adamant in our opposition," said Deriece Pate Bennett, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce's vice president for government affairs. "It's one more nail in the coffin."

Under Pugh's proposal, businesses with 10 or more employees would be required to offer workers an hour of sick leave for every 30 hours worked — about seven days a year. State workers accrue 1.5 hours of sick leave for every 26 hours, or up to 15 days a year.

The sick leave could be used to care for family members. The mandate would apply only to workers who have been at a business for more than three months and have a regular schedule. Businesses would be required to keep records and face penalties for violating the rules.

"So many times we see people coming into the workplace ill … it ends up costing more," Pugh said. "We're not saying give sick leave. We're saying allow people to earn sick leave."

A 2014 legislative analysis of a previous sick leave proposal found that it would cost the state roughly $500,000 to track the policy and likely increase expenditures significantly more, as the policy affects state contractors and local jurisdictions.

The proposed legislation would burden small firms and interfere with the flexibility employers can offer currently, said Jessica Copper, Maryland director for the National Federation of Independent Business, who plans to testify against the bill at a hearing next week. The group has produced research showing it could cost states thousands in lost jobs.

"This is a well-intended bill ... but the consequences of that cookie-cutter type of mandate on a small employer are sometimes not thought out," Cooper said.

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Del. Kathy Szeliga, minority whip in the House of Delegates, said her experience running a contracting company had led her to believe that employees often do not use sick leave as the law intends. But she signaled the openness to a more general leave policy.

"What we found our paid sick leave turned into was a fishing day," said Szeliga, a Republican who represents parts of Baltimore and Harford counties. "So perhaps not calling it a 'sick day,' maybe it's called leave and then somehow we have to encourage our employees to save them up for a day when they actually are sick and are going to need them."

"Whatever we call it, we want to make sure people have what they need when they get sick," Pugh responded.

Employees typically use about 2.8 days sick days a year, excluding maternity leave, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research study.

A 2014 survey of 251 Connecticut employers by the progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research found about 66 percent reported the law added less than 2 percent to overall costs. Connecticut's law, approved in 2011, requires accrual of up to five days of paid leave a year. The law does not apply to businesses with fewer than 50 workers, among other exemptions.

The Greater Baltimore Committee, which has opposed similar legislation previously, has not taken a position on the current legislation, said spokesman Gene Bracken.

Scott Dorsey, CEO of real estate firm Merritt Properties LLC, one of the sponsors of Monday's forum, said many businesses are not opposed to sick leave policies but believe the proposed legislation goes too far.

"Most of the business people I know wonder if maybe seven days is more than required," he said. "I think … the devil's in the details."

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