Opposing sides in the debate over whether Maryland should require employers to provide paid sick leave met Tuesday in a clash that pitted calls for fairness against a defense of the rights of employers.
The two camps, including business owners on both sides of the issue, spoke at a Senate committee hearing on a sick leave bill sponsored by Sen. Catherine E. Pugh.
Pugh, a Baltimore Democrat, said that while many employers already provide paid sick leave to their workers, about 700,000 Marylanders lack the ability to earn time off when they're sick or their family members are ill.
"This is legislation that's really about fairness," said Pugh. Acknowledging a popular Republican slogan about getting government off people's backs, she responded, "If we were all doing the right thing, we wouldn't have to have government on our backs."
Pugh said the bill also makes business sense. By letting sick workers stay home, she said, employers can keep disease from spreading throughout their workplaces and increasing absenteeism while decreasing productivity. A study done for the bill's proponents figured universal paid sick leave would save Maryland businesses $13 million a year. Supporters also said the bill exempts companies with fewer than 10 workers, about 75 percent of employers in Maryland.
Opponents weren't persuaded.
Shelby Skeabeck, a lawyer who appeared on behalf of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, said the bill could add 34 cents an hour to an employer's payroll costs and force businesses to raise prices or cut wages.
"In short, this bill is anti-business," she said.
The clash over sick pay could be the first test of whether the Democratic-controlled General Assembly can still pass labor-friendly legislation after the election of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan brought with it more Republican members in both chambers.
Erin Montgomery, a spokeswoman for Hogan, said he has yet to take a position on the issue.
"We are in the very beginning of a long legislative session, and as we all know, most bills have the tendency to look much different by the time April comes around," she said. "The governor and his staff will be monitoring countless pieces of legislation as this session plays out over the next several months."
Nevertheless, many of Hogan's business allies are lining up with Republican legislators against it.
"We're putting the employer in a position where they have to pay for employees not being at work," said Sen. Stephen H. Hershey Jr., an Eastern Shore Republican.
Pugh said Tuesday that she and her allies had signed up 77 House members — a majority — as co-sponsors. She said she had the support of 21 senators, just short of a majority. Passing the bill by a slim majority could leave the bill vulnerable to a veto. It would take 85 votes in the 141-member House and 29 in the 47-member Senate to override a veto.
Witnesses supporting the bill marshaled a range of arguments, including fair treatment in the workplace, family concerns and public health considerations.
Megan Sennett, a 41-year-old single mother from Annapolis, said she works three part-time jobs with no paid sick leave. She described how two years ago she put off missing work to see a doctor until she ended up in the emergency room with a severe kidney infection.
Sennett said her doctor told her to take 10 days off to recover or risk a relapse.
"My heart just sank because I had no idea how I could take off 10 days," she said. She said she wound up taking off a week, but believes the period could have been much shorter if she had taken a single day off earlier.
Mary Stein, a school nurse in Howard County, 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.
Opponents expressed concerns about the possibility they would face increased payroll costs and the potential that employees could abuse the benefit. But time and time again, their argument came down to the right of business owners to run the workplace as they see fit.
"The issue is that it's mandating employers to provide the service," said Deriece Pate Bennett, the Maryland chamber's vice president for government relations.