Paid Sick Leave Bill Provokes Showdown in Maryland

Bruce Vail March 22, 2017

If the bill is passed, Maryland would join Connecticut, California, Massachusetts, Oregon and Vermont as states that have already enacted paid sick leave laws. (Working Matters/ Facebook)

ANNAPO­LIS – A show­down is loom­ing between Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty law­mak­ers and the state’s Repub­li­can gov­er­nor over leg­is­la­tion designed to guar­an­tee most Mary­land work­ers the right to paid sick days.

The new law has been mov­ing slow­ly through the leg­is­la­ture but scored an impor­tant advance last week when the Mary­land Sen­ate approved a mod­i­fied ver­sion of a sim­i­lar bill that passed the House of Del­e­gates ear­li­er this month. The increased like­li­hood that a final bill would be approved by both hous­es of the leg­is­la­ture in the next few weeks prompt­ed an explic­it veto threat from Gov. Lar­ry Hogan, who claims the law would be bur­den­some to busi­ness­es in the state.

A show­down over the issue of earned sick leave,” as pro­po­nents of paid sick days pre­fer to call it, is there­fore in the off­ing, accord­ing to Crys­tal Hall, a cam­paign­er with the Bal­ti­more-based advo­ca­cy group Work­ers Unit­ed. Sup­port among state leg­is­la­tors is rel­a­tive­ly strong, she says, and it seems like­ly that a Hogan veto could be over­rid­den, although such a vote would be close.

Progress toward earned sick leave has been painful­ly slow, explains Liz Richards, a spokes­woman for Work­ing Mat­ters, a 160-mem­ber coali­tion of labor groups, faith-based orga­ni­za­tions and health­care advo­cates push­ing the new law. It was intro­duced into the leg­is­la­ture years ago, but nev­er gained real momen­tum until this year. Dogged lob­by­ing and coali­tion-build­ing over the years final­ly con­vinced Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty lead­ers to move paid sick leave to the top of the agen­da, Richards says, spurred in part by a suc­cess­ful 2015 effort in the state’s pop­u­lous Mont­gomery Coun­ty to enact paid leave at the local level.

The cen­ter­piece of the earned sick leave law would require employ­ers to give work­ers a min­i­mum of five sick days a year. It would apply to most work­ers in the state, except those at com­pa­nies that employ less than 15 peo­ple. Work­ing Mat­ters esti­mates that 750,000 peo­ple in Mary­land do not cur­rent­ly have paid sick days.

Being forced to work with­out paid sick leave is a plague and we need to wipe it out,” says Doreen Hicks, 46, a com­mer­cial house­keep­er from the Bal­ti­more sub­urb of Dun­dalk. Every­one needs paid sick leave … We need­ed it years ago.”

Hicks says she has been work­ing at low-income jobs for some 30 years.

When my daugh­ter was younger, I some­times would have to take time off to take her to the doc­tor. That’s less mon­ey at the end of the week. That means some­thing for a lot of peo­ple,” she says.

Her expe­ri­ences led Hicks to become a vol­un­teer for Work­ers Unit­ed and to cam­paign for the new bill. Much of the cam­paign work has involved coax­ing con­ser­v­a­tive pro-busi­ness Democ­rats into sup­port­ing the bill, explains Hall, as this fac­tion con­trols the dif­fer­ence between a sim­ple major­i­ty of leg­isla­tive votes and the larg­er major­i­ty need­ed to over­ride a guber­na­to­r­i­al veto. Last week’s Sen­ate action, for exam­ple, passed with 29 votes — the absolute min­i­mum need­ed to over­ride a veto — and some of those votes are regard­ed as a lit­tle shaky, Hall says.

His­tor­i­cal­ly, pro-busi­ness Democ­rats in Mary­land have often allied them­selves with con­ser­v­a­tive Repub­li­cans to block pro-work­er leg­is­la­tion in the state. For pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tions, that means they must spend most of their lob­by­ing ener­gy on a hand­ful of Democrats. 

Labor unions have been impor­tant in that effort.

Work­ing Mat­ters has been thrilled to have the labor com­mu­ni­ty as part of our broad coali­tion. They have helped lead the charge call­ing, email­ing and con­tact­ing leg­is­la­tors to make earned paid sick days a real­i­ty,” says Richards.

Among the union orga­ni­za­tions most active in the effort have been the AFL-CIO, Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of State, Coun­ty and Munic­i­pal Employ­ees, Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union, UNITE HERE and Unit­ed Food & Com­mer­cial Work­ers. Also active have been Amal­ga­mat­ed Tran­sit Union, Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca, Labor­ers Inter­na­tion­al Union, Mary­land State Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion and Nation­al Nurs­es United.

If the bill is passed, Mary­land would join Con­necti­cut, Cal­i­for­nia, Mass­a­chu­setts, Ore­gon and Ver­mont as states that have already enact­ed paid sick leave laws. Wash­ing­ton, D.C., New York City, and a num­ber of oth­er munic­i­pal­i­ties have passed local ordi­nances guar­an­tee­ing sick pay.

With only three weeks left before the Mary­land leg­is­la­ture is sched­uled to end its annu­al ses­sion, work is now shift­ing almost entire­ly behind the scenes, where Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty lead­ers will nego­ti­ate with Hogan — and among them­selves — on the final shape of the law.

I stat­ed work­ing when I was 16 and I nev­er had paid sick leave until just last year when I final­ly got it,” Hicks said. I’ve worked all my life to pay the bills.” 

Bruce Vail is a Bal­ti­more-based free­lance writer with decades of expe­ri­ence cov­er­ing labor and busi­ness sto­ries for news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Dai­ly Labor Report, cov­er­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing issues in a wide range of indus­tries, and a mar­itime indus­try reporter and edi­tor for the Jour­nal of Com­merce, serv­ing both in the newspaper’s New York City head­quar­ters and in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. bureau.
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