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Getting to yes on sick leave

The electoral politics are thick in the debate over Gov. Larry Hogan's decision to veto the mandatory paid sick leave bill the General Assembly passed this year. The Republican governor called it a "job killing" measure while Democratic legislators accused him of denying a necessary benefit to 700,000 Marylanders. But there's some real substance here, too; neither the bill that passed nor the governor's own proposal is perfect. Governor Hogan is right that Maryland could get a better piece of legislation if the two sides worked together.

We have always had mixed feelings about the effort to provide mandatory paid sick leave benefits for Maryland workers. We sympathize greatly with those advocating for the benefit. They make a compelling case, particularly on public health grounds, that a system in which workers feel economic pressure to show up when they are sick is bad for society. But we also worry about the effects of this legislation on Maryland's business climate. It would impose costs on employers, and none of our regional competitors (with the exception of Washington, D.C.) require such a benefit. President Donald Trump's budget should send shudders through the spines of Maryland officials about the prospects for an economy as dependent on the federal government as ours is. We need to be doing everything possible to diversify our jobs base, and any new burden on employers needs to be considered very carefully.

The big difference between the governor's bill and the legislature's is that his proposal would have required only relatively large firms — those with more than 50 workers — to allow employees to accrue paid leave time. The legislature's would cover businesses with 15 or more workers. Mr. Hogan would offer tax credits to smaller businesses that voluntarily offer paid sick leave. How many would take advantage of it is anybody's guess.

But as Governor Hogan noted in announcing his veto, there are a lot of small differences between the two that warrant more attention. For example, the legislature's bill goes to great lengths to specify under what circumstances workers would be allowed to take sick days, what constitutes a "family member" for whom a worker can use sick days to provide care, and for what purposes a victim of domestic violence may use time off. And it includes notice requirements that could force a worker to tell an employer more about his or her health than is necessary or warranted.

Governor Hogan's bill simply requires that employers provide up to 40 hours of paid leave per year to be used for any reason whatsoever. That seems much better.

The governor is also right to question some of the enforcement provisions in the legislature's bill. Employers would be forced to keep sick leave records for three years, and if regulators find they haven't, they would then be presumed to have violated the sick leave law and could be liable for up to triple damages for any unfairly denied wages. That goes a bit too far in presuming an antagonistic relationship between employers and employees.

Mr. Hogan's bill isn't perfect either. Among other things, it likely would cover substantially fewer workers than the Democrats' bill. It doesn't really cover business with 50 or more employees — it covers businesses with 50 or more workers in one location. That's a big difference. It also leaves out any workers who average fewer than 30 hours a week.

There's clearly a productive compromise to be had here — take the simplicity of the governor's approach and some form of tax incentives for affected small firms and something closer to the legislature's terms on the size of businesses affected and eligibility requirements for workers.

Will that happen? We doubt it. Mr. Hogan provided some evidence that he's sincere in wanting to work on this issue by signing executive orders extending the benefit to state contract workers and providing preference in the state procurement system for firms that offer sick leave. He's also ordered another study of sick leave from both the employee and employer perspectives. But for Democrats, the temptation to start off the election year with an override of Mr. Hogan's veto is strong. Indeed, we suspect many were delighted by the veto, which could provide a wedge issue in the gubernatorial race without meaningfully affecting workers' benefits, since the bill's effective date wasn't until Jan. 1 anyway, just a couple of weeks before lawmakers return to Annapolis.

But regardless of whether Mr. Hogan can persuade enough Democrats to sustain his veto, we urge him to continue pursuing adjustments to the legislation to make it better both for employers and workers. He's on record supporting the bill's goal. Now he needs to find a way to make it work.

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