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Half of Howard delegation supports General Assembly paid sick leave bill

A General Assembly bill that would guarantee paid sick leave for many Maryland workers has official support from half the members of Howard County's delegation to Annapolis, who say the legislation will benefit workers and businesses alike. Some local business owners, meanwhile, say they feel the proposal represents an unnecessary intrusion by the state.

The Maryland Healthy Working Families Act, introduced by Baltimore City Sen. Catherine Pugh, a Democrat and the Senate majority leader, would require businesses with staffs of 10 or more people to offer employees an hour of sick leave for every 30 hours of work, which adds up to about seven sick days a year.

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The legislation, which has been proposed unsuccessfully in the General Assembly in recent years, has found new momentum after President Barack Obama called on Congress to pass a bill giving all American workers the opportunity to accrue seven days of sick leave during his State of the Union address in January.

Five Howard County Democrats – delegates Frank Turner, Shane Pendergrass, Vanessa Atterbeary, Clarence Lam and Terri Hill, as well as Del. Eric Ebersole, a Democrat from Catonsville who represents Howard in District 12 – have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill in the House.

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Lam and Hill, who both work as doctors alongside their State House roles, said taking a day of sick leave can often help speed recovery for an employee who is ill.

"Without paid sick leave, struggling workers must come to work even when they are sick," Lam wrote in an email. "This spreads disease, reduces the productivity of the worker and puts his or her coworkers at risk, eventually perpetuating the loss of productivity throughout businesses."

"I think paid sick leave is not unlike many workers' rights issues that we have gradually become accustomed to, like the 40-hour work week [and] lunch breaks," Hill said. "I don't think it's an extreme bill and I don't think it would be overly burdensome on even small employers." Still, she said she wants to ensure employers have sufficient protections against employees who accuse them of violating the mandate.

Some local businesses said the bill would be a burden if it were to become law.

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Donna Robbins, the human resources director at Turf Valley in Ellicott City, said the financial impact on the resort could be "tremendous."

Turf Valley currently offers three sick days a year to full-time employees. If the business adds four more, Robbins said, they are potentially looking at an extra $100,000 in costs. Turf Valley also does not function on an accrual basis; switching over would require a substantial overhaul of the system, she added.

"They're trying to make it one-size-fits-all and they just can't; every employer needs to decide what works best for their place of employment," Robbins said.

The Howard County Chamber of Commerce has also taken a stance against the bill, though President Leonardo McClarty clarified that "the chamber certainly is not against having paid sick time off."

But McClarty said businesses should be able to operate with more flexibility.

"This is another approach of, in essence, our government saying, businesses, you must do this, and not taking into account different industries and policies businesses might already have in place," McClarty said. He noted that the trend among businesses has been to move to "paid time off" – a broad category of leave that could be used for a sick day or vacation.

A hearing on the bill is scheduled for Feb. 13 in the House's Economic Matters committee. Del. Warren Miller, a Republican from District 9A who is a member of the committee, said he was opposed to the legislation because it implies "the business owner's guilty until proven innocent.

"I just think it's taking Maryland in the wrong direction," Miller said. "We want to attract employers here ... and this bill would be a clear stop sign to companies outside the state that want to locate here."

But one Howard County resident testified before the Senate's Finance Committee last week that the bill, which would also allow workers to take leave in order to care for a sick family member, would make an important difference.

Mary Stein, a school nurse at Lime Kiln Middle School and Clarksville Elementary School, said she frequently hears parents say they can't take leave to stay with a sick child because they would lose their jobs. She described a situation where a mother brings in a child who is not feeling well in the morning and has a 102-degree fever by lunchtime.

"Then there's 30 children in that kindergarten that have been exposed," she said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Michael Dresser and Timothy Wheeler contributed to this story.

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