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Laurel Leader

District 21 delegation supports paid sick leave bill, local businesses split

A General Assembly bill that would guarantee paid sick leave for many Maryland workers has official support from the entire District 21 delegation, but business owners in the region are less united.

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.

All four Democrats in the District 21 delegation, which represents parts of Laurel, have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill. In Howard County, six Democrats from the Howard delegation have registered their support.

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"Many illnesses are contagious, and most employers, understandably, don't want people coming to work sick," said District 21 Sen. Jim Rosapepe. "This legislation simply provides for these working people to earn sick leave. They're not getting sick leave, they earn it."

Rosapepe said the bill would largely benefit employees at low-wage jobs, who often don't have guaranteed leave.

"Forty percent of people working in the private sector don't get any sick leave at all, and that's a burden on them if they have kids and families, and frankly it's a burden on the other people who work where they work," Rosapepe said. "I think [the bill] is basically good for the employees, it's good for their families, it's good for their companies, it's good for the community."

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

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

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.

The Laurel Board of Trade, meanwhile, has not yet adopted an official position on the legislation. Board of Trade Chairman Bernie Robinson said the group would discuss the bill at a meeting next week.

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Speaking for himself, however, Robinson, who serves as branch manager at PNC Bank on Main Street, said he sees "more benefit than issues" with guaranteed paid leave in the long run.

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"I think there are benefits with this, but obviously there are some businesses that feel it may be a challenge as well," he said.

A hearing on the bill is scheduled for Feb. 13 in the House's Economic Matters committee. Del. Warren Miller, a Republican from western Howard County 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, 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.

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"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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