Maryland is closer to requiring bosses to allow their employees to earn sick leave following a key vote in the House of Delegates Tuesday.
For the past three years, lawmakers have killed bills requiring sick leave for workers, but the issue picked up momentum in Annapolis this year.
Advocates hope that momentum will continue in the final week of the General Assembly session as they lobby the state Senate to follow the lead of the House.
"It's been four years of work," said Del. Luke Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the bill in the House. "Now the question becomes the Senate."
The bill approved by the House requires companies with 15 or more employees to offer paid sick leave to workers at a rate of one hour of leave for every 30 hours worked, totaling 56 hours — or seven days — per year. Companies with fewer than 15 employees would be required to offer the same amount of unpaid sick leave. The bill has exemptions for employees younger than 18 and seasonal employees who work fewer than 90 days a year.
The 84-54 vote came after more than an hour of debate, in which Democrats said sick leave helps low-income workers and promotes public health, while Republicans said it would be a burden on employers that's part of a "war on work."
"This bill is a job-killer for Maryland," said Del. Mary Beth Carozza, an Eastern Shore Republican who had attempted to expand the exemption for seasonal workers to benefit businesses in Ocean City. She said companies might now hire summer workers for just 89 days — instead of 100 or more days — in order to come in under the threshold for having to provide sick leave.
Del. Mark Fisher, a Calvert County Republican, talked about table-top computer screens that some restaurants use. He predicted Marylanders will see more screens instead of waiters and waitresses as labor costs continue to rise because of mandates such as paid leave.
That's bad news for young and unskilled workers, who often get their first jobs in restaurants, Fisher said.
"This bill kills opportunity in the state of Maryland," he said.
Democrats countered that all workers should be able to stay home from work when they are sick without fear of losing their jobs — just as lawmakers themselves can do.
Del. Dereck Davis, a Prince George's Democrat, said the arguments about worker protections causing businesses to fail has been heard over and over. He cited the 1935 Social Security Act, the 1939 Fair Labor Standards Act, the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act and others that were deemed to be "job-killers" — but weren't.
"Every time we try and do something for workers, 'It's going to kill businesses. It's going to chase businesses out. It's going to kill the economy.' You hear that time and again. 'It's going to be a job killer,'" he said. "Yet, we're still here."
Other Democrats said that illness outbreaks are often traced back to restaurants, where employees work while sick. Others cited statistics that flu rates decline in areas with paid sick leave laws.
Advocates who had been lobbying for the bill were elated with the vote, cheering Clippinger when he emerged from the chamber. Melissa Broome with the nonprofit Job Opportunities Task Force enveloped Clippinger in a hug, while others applauded.
The outcome of the vote was never in doubt, however, because 81 delegates cosponsored the bill in the 141-member House. With 84 votes in favor, the legislation was one vote short of the number needed to overturn a veto if the bill passes the Senate and is vetoed by Gov. Larry Hogan. Four delegates were absent.
Hogan, a Republican, hasn't taken a public position on the bill. "We will give it every consideration," he said Tuesday.
The bill has been opposed by small business groups, chambers of commerce and the Restaurant Association of Maryland.
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The Senate has yet to act on its version of the bill. The Senate bill has a majority of cosponsors among the full Senate, but needs to win at least one more vote on the Senate Finance Committee to advance in the legislative process.
Time is running short on the bill, however, as the General Assembly ends at midnight on Monday.