The sick leave showdown

If you can get through all the gratuitous shots at the Democrats in the General Assembly, the report Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration released about paid sick leave in Maryland makes some good points and contains some good ideas — including a few that are actually more favorable to workers than the “horrible” bill he vetoed this spring. Too bad none of it will probably matter when the legislature returns to Annapolis in January and makes an override of the veto its first order of business and a marker for what is likely to be a contentious election-year session.

There’s credit and blame to be doled out on both sides in this situation. The legislature has been working on this issue for years, since well before Mr. Hogan came to town, and has by no means rushed to enact some loony liberal bill. While we have always been cautious about this issue and the possible impact of a paid sick leave requirement could have on the economy, we acknowledge that a lot of thought, research and compromise went into the bill that finally passed. Mr. Hogan, meanwhile, went much farther than one might expect for a pro-business, Republican governor in announcing support last year for the concept of a paid sick leave requirement and introducing his own legislation.

As for blame, Democrats never really gave Mr. Hogan’s bill a fair hearing last year, dismissing out of hand his idea for tax credits to help small businesses pay for the benefit. And the commission Mr. Hogan put together to study the issue over the interim was a closed group of members of his administration — and it showed. The report it issued spends page after page finding things to criticize about the Democrats’ bill that are neither here nor there. It argues at length, for example, that the Democrats’ estimates for how many workers would benefit from the bill are too high, even though it doesn’t propose a solution that would necessarily do more. It argues that the rate of accrual of sick leave under the Democrats’ bill wouldn’t amount to much for some workers but doesn’t suggest something better. And it includes a lengthy digression about the fact that the bill wouldn’t solve all the problems faced by welfare recipients, which is true enough but beside the point. The bottom line is that Democrats have reason to balk at Mr. Hogan’s characterization of his new bill as a “compromise,” since it amounts to nothing more than his willingness to compromise with himself.

All that said, there’s some substance here that shouldn’t be lost. The Hogan administration report suggests constructive ways to make the administration of sick leave benefits easier and less confusing for businesses. For example, the legislature’s bill exempts part-time workers who typically clock fewer than 12 hours per week, which business owners who talked to the governor’s work group said would be difficult to track. Mr. Hogan now suggests eliminating the distinction between part-time and full-time workers altogether and allowing everyone to accrue leave at the same rate. Great idea.

The report notes that the legislature’s bill exempts far more categories of workers than other labor laws, which has the potential to create confusion. Fair point; the list could be narrowed.

The Hogan administration is particularly concerned by a provision that exempts union construction laborers from the mandatory sick leave benefit if it is explicitly waived in a collective bargaining agreement. The governor is proposing to exempt all construction workers, but the legislature could just as easily exempt none to eliminate the disparity.

The report notes that the legislature sought to exempt seasonal employers by making workers eligible only after 106 days on the job — a figure derived by the average time between Memorial Day and Labor Day. But the length of the visas used by many of the foreign workers in Ocean City and elsewhere is 120 days, so the Hogan report suggests using that figure instead. That’s certainly reasonable.

The report also raises concerns about whether workers might be forced to provide employers with sensitive personal information to justify their use of sick leave. Legislative leaders insist that’s not so, and they have an opinion from the Attorney General’s office to back them up. Regardless, Mr. Hogan’s proposed remedy is a good one — allowing the accrued leave time to be used for any purpose. That’s the direction a lot of private sector companies are going anyway.

There is actually room for a good compromise here that marries the legislature’s effort to cover businesses with 15 or more employees with Governor Hogan’s idea for tax credits and amendments that address many of the specific concerns raised in his report. A spokesman says the governor views his new bill as a starting point, but Mr. Hogan also threw a lot of rhetorical punches in his invitation of Democrats to the bargaining table. In any case, this train appears already to have left the station. Unless Governor Hogan can peel away one Democrat in the Senate, it looks like the skids are greased for an override. The best we can hope is that once the political dust of the 2018 election settles, the governor and legislature (whoever they may be) will come back and improve the bill for the sake of workers and employers alike.

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