The Howard County Council approved 4-1 Monday a bill that requires some employers to recall to work certain employees who were laid off due to the COVID-19 state of emergency.
Bills approved by the council must be sent to County Executive Calvin Ball within three days for his signature. Upon receipt, the executive has 10 days either to sign the bill or veto it. If no action is taken, the bill becomes law.
Council member Liz Walsh, a Democrat representing District 1, introduced the bill as emergency legislation in January. Her aim was to give laid off workers, specifically housekeepers, banquet workers, janitors and cooks, the right to get their jobs back as businesses reopened.
The issue was brought up in November, when former employees of the Sheraton Columbia Town Center Hotel in Columbia staged numerous protests as they were not called back when the hotel reopened at the renovated Merriweather Lakehouse Hotel.
David Costello, owner of Merriweather Lakehouse Hotel and several other businesses in the county, wrote in an email Tuesday that he is “extraordinarily troubled” by the bill.
“It clearly targets one business; the new Merriweather Lakehouse Hotel. Nonetheless, my company and I remain committed to, and are very busy with, our mission to build projects that are of the highest quality and benefit the community,” Costello wrote. “We are not in the business of, nor do we have time to engage in political and social media battles. We will continue to do the right thing, abide by all applicable laws, old and new, and will leave the other distractions for those with the time and appetite for them.”
The bill passed Monday after a lengthy discussion and votes on 11 amendments. The council even discussed amendments to amendments that covered specific details, such as how many times an employer is required to contact an employee (once); what county agency would enforce the bill (whichever county or state agency possesses the specific expertise needed) and when the recall time period ends (Dec. 31).
Council member Deb Jung, a Democrat representing District 4, voted in favor of the bill and its amendments.
“While the bill has been amended, I think what’s important here is that it will provide, I hope, some relief for the employees who would like to go back to work,” Jung said. “At the same time, it will provide a better understating of what the employers must do in order to fulfill their duties and obligations under this bill.”
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Walsh also cast a vote in favor of the bill.
“This bill never ever should have been this hard,” Walsh said. “I will never understand how it got into this place and why it was so difficult.”
On Tuesday, Walsh said the bill was “weakened” by the amendments and that “fancy lawyers” would be able to limit the “effects of the bill as intended.”
Walsh said that even if only a few people benefited, “it would be great.”
Tracy Lingo, staff director for UNITE HERE Local 7, a union that represents many hospitality workers in the county, was happy with the bill’s passage.
“Even with its amendments, this bill will mean economic stability and peace of mind for hundreds of Howard County hospitality workers,” Lingo wrote in an email Tuesday. “We want to thank Liz Walsh, the bill’s sponsor, and Councilwoman Rigby for their tireless advocacy and the hundreds of Howard County residents who wrote letters, made calls, knocked on doors and rallied in the heat of summer and cold of winter to make sure Howard County lived up to its ideals of equality and inclusion.”
David Yungmann, a Republican representing District 5, was the lone negative vote, and did not comment on his decision.