Md. should go slow on mandatory sick leave

Most of us likely take paid sick leave for granted. It accumulates over time, and we dip into the account when there's an injury or illness that prevents us from going to work, whether for a day or, as in the case of a serious malady, for much longer. Workers benefit most directly, but it also allows employers to attract the best and brightest workers and spares their co-workers and customers from coming into contact with a potentially contagious disease.

But what so many have come to expect as a minimum standard of full-time employment, many others have never experienced first-hand. In the most recent federal labor statistics report, researchers found that nearly 40 percent of Americans employed in the private sector do not receive paid sick leave. In the lower-paid professions, such as in the hotel and fast-food restaurant industries, the number without sick leave runs closer to 80 percent.

That's troubling, and under such circumstances it's not surprising that some advocacy groups are now stepping forward in support of a law to mandate paid sick leave in Maryland. While the specifics of the proposal aren't yet available, it's likely to require private employers to offer workers the chance to accumulate sick leave, perhaps five to nine days a year, although small mom-and-pop shops might be exempted altogether.

At least, that's what has been done in a handful of jurisdictions in the U.S., starting with San Francisco, the first city to adopt such a standard, in 2006 (and joined by Washington, D.C. two years later). That makes it a relatively new requirement, and its full impact is difficult to gauge. Connecticut is the only state to pass such a law (which went into effect Jan. 1). Some believe it's been a win-win for workers and employers, but there's also been evidence that it has raised costs for businesses and hampered job creation.

All of which suggests that lawmakers in Annapolis should be reluctant to force this mandate on employers at a time when the emphasis should be on creating jobs. Maryland may be faring better than most states in this challenging economy, but unemployment remains high, and even if President Barack Obama and members of Congress take action to prevent the looming "fiscal cliff," federal spending is still likely to drop considerably — and that's destined to have an adverse effect on the national capital region.

Maryland business groups often complain about the state's "business climate." While their concerns are sometimes overstated, this represents one instance where the state should refrain from piling additional regulations on employers, many of whom are already facing added burdens over the next two years from the Affordable Care Act and the rising cost of health insurance. As much as we welcome that federally mandated expansion of health insurance coverage, we must also acknowledge that it will put stress on some businesses.

That's not to suggest that it isn't ultimately in the best interest of employers to offer sick leave. Polls show Americans overwhelmingly favor it, including those who identify themselves as political conservatives. But a potentially inflexible government mandate is something else. That raises a fundamental question of cost and benefits. One study has estimated that paid sick leave adds just 23 cents per hour to the cost of an employee. Others have suggested that too many Americans go to work sick — including an estimated 8 million during the peak of the H1N1 flu virus outbreak several years ago, despite a warning from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to stay home.

The concept of a sick leave mandate is so new, however, that it's difficult to know exactly how it would translate in Maryland. That alone should cause lawmakers to go slow. Under the circumstances, it's far more prudent to let other states take the plunge and serve as test cases. If the proposal is the win-win that supporters claim, then Gov. Martin O'Malley and the General Assembly can learn from the experience of others and approve a similar law here.

In the meantime, it would be most helpful if elected officials focused more on ways to support small businesses and encourage job creation — at least beyond the expanded gambling approved at the ballot box — than on new regulations. Democrats in Annapolis may want to demonstrate that Republicans aren't the only ones looking to foster private-sector growth. Otherwise, critics of Maryland's business climate may come down with a serious, and possibly voter-infecting, case of "I-told-you-so's."

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