Frederick County lawmakers offered a preview on Thursday of the paid sick leave debate that’s likely to dominate the early days of the 2018 General Assembly session.
At issue is how best to establish legally protected paid sick leave policies for workers at small businesses in Maryland.
Democrats in the General Assembly passed a bill last session that would give employees at businesses with 15 or more workers five days of paid sick leave, earned at a rate of one hour for every 30 hours of work, once they’ve worked at the business for 106 days.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) vetoed the bill in May and announced his own measure last month that would phase in paid sick leave policies for businesses with 25 or more employees and offer an income tax deduction to offset costs for businesses with fewer than 50 employees.
Hogan intends to introduce his proposal as an emergency bill at the start of the General Assembly session, and Democrats have vowed an early veto override vote to make their proposal law.
Delegate Karen Lewis Young (D-District 3A) voiced support for the veto override effort during a legislative preview breakfast with the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce on Thursday morning.
She said legislative analysts estimate there are more than 800,000 Marylanders without sick pay and about 677,000 will be eligible for paid leave under the Democrats’ bill.
Lewis Young said the Democrats’ proposal was “fair and balanced,” while the governor’s proposal curtails a necessary public benefit.
Delegate Kathy Afzali (R-District 4) said Republicans attempted to amend the bill last year, but their suggestions were voted down. She called Hogan’s bill “a reasonable alternative.”
Lewis Young touted a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll from March that found 84 percent support for the broad parameters of the Democrats’ bill.
But Afzali questioned the figure.
“I think a lot of those people support the bill until they get laid off. Which they will,” Afzali said. “Because this will turn a lot of small businesses to automation and lose those jobs that a lot of those working-class people have.”
Lewis Young said she worked for 30 years before entering politics, at large corporations and her own business, and doesn’t think the bill will ultimately cause any layoffs.
“I have never seen a successful business model that made it or couldn’t make it based on giving an employee five days of paid sick leave,” Lewis Young said. “I would make the reverse argument. If that employee is coming to the work ill, they’re not that productive. They’re contaminating everybody else, including the customers. And that’s going to cost you a whole lot more than allowing someone to come home, recover quickly and come back to work.”
Afzali called the Democrats’ bill “government inserting itself where it really didn’t belong.”
“To insist that somehow government is the protector of people who are being treated badly by small businesses, is simply not the case,” Afzali said. “Maryland’s small businesses are the largest employer in this state. And the reason they’re the largest employer in the state is because they do, generally, treat their employees well.”
Lawmakers also debated to what extent bipartisan solutions were considered to address the issue.
Sen. Ron Young (D-District 3), who will support the veto override effort, said Hogan’s administration never accepted invitations from Democratic General Assembly leaders to discuss last year’s bill.
Maryland Secretary of Labor, Licensing and Regulation Kelly Schulz, who attended the meeting, said Democratic lawmakers chose this summer not to participate in a task force she headed to examine the issue.
Since the veto, the governor’s office has been working to make the bill better, Schulz said.
The 72-page report completed by the task force — and the Hogan administration as a whole — don’t oppose the concept of paid sick leave.
“I’m not here today, the governor’s not here today, to debate the need, the necessity of paid sick leave,” Schulz said. “That conversation has occurred over the last five years.”
Jason Lee, a chamber member and small-business owner, said he thinks paid sick leave policies are an important conversation to have, but he didn’t want lawmakers to fall victim to what he calls the “Wal-Mart syndrome,” where everyone thinks that small businesses can be as agile as massive corporations.
“Everybody thinks that we can just, on a dime, turn around and say we can take this cost. ... I think things are happening so fast for small businesses that we can’t react to it,” Lee said. “It’s hard sometimes to pay bills and deal with all the other things you have to deal with and someone says ‘Hey, you know what, you’ve got to do this.’”
Lee encouraged lawmakers to consider small businesses and “look at balance” in their consideration of state laws.
Delegate Barrie Ciliberti (R-District 4) said he has three letters from small businesses that say they’ll have to cut jobs if the bill takes effect.
Rick Weldon, vice president of operations for the chamber, moderated the discussion, and said the chamber will create a new space on its website where officials on all sides of the paid sick leave debate will be able to add information about the proposals.
“We don’t always all agree. And on the biggest questions that face our legislators in Annapolis, just like up at City Hall or over at Winchester Hall, it’s important to recognize that we do have differences of opinion. We even have different ways that we see sets of facts, based on our history, our own biases, our own education,” Weldon said.
He encouraged those in attendance to take on disagreements “productively and thoughtfully and professionally.”