ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — The state of Maryland should make sure that a minimum amount of sick leave is available to low-wage employees who can't afford to miss a day's pay, Del. John A. Olszewski Jr. says.
Currently, many of them cannot earn sick leave in their jobs. A Baltimore nonprofit, the Job Opportunities Task Force, estimates that more than 700,000 Maryland workers don't have access to sick leave.
Olszewski mentioned this number while testifying to the House Economic Matters Committee Tuesday.
Olszewski, a Baltimore County Democrat, has introduced legislation requiring employees to give at least one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours worked, capping the number at seven a year. In general, businesses that give other forms of paid time off, such as vacation days, would be exempt.
Also, businesses with 10 or fewer employees would be allowed to offer unpaid sick leave instead.
At times, the discussion at Tuesday's hearing echoed recent minimum wage debates. Opponents said small employers can't afford it, whatever its benefits to workers.
Deriece Pate Bennett, vice president of government affairs for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, said the vast majority of employers already give some paid time off. Most businesses that don't simply can't afford it. And if they don't have human resource offices, she said it would create bureaucratic hassles.
She also said workers would be able to abuse the policy, taking sick days for frivolous reasons. And it might make business recruitment harder.
The Institute for Women's Policy Research estimates that it would cost $192 million to state employers, the equivalent of a 24-cent hourly wage increase.
However, the bill's supporters brought their own data.
Melissa Broome, a policy advocate for the Jobs Opportunities Task Force, said employers nationwide lose $160 billion a year because of workers underperforming when they're ill.
And if the whole country had this kind of policy, spending on emergency room visits would drop by about $1.1 billion a year, according to a study from the Institute for Women's Policy Research.
The advocates could not give an estimate of how many Maryland businesses presently don't give any paid time off.
But the most arresting testimony came from wage workers.
Mark Sine, a veteran of restaurant kitchens, said he once felt sick at the start of a work week. He still reported for his shifts, five days in a row, and by the last day, his throat was so sore he could hardly swallow. A doctor told him he had mono. He missed two work weeks recovering.
Matt Quinlan, who has worked in about a dozen high-end Baltimore restaurants, said sometimes one cook gets sick and spreads his illness around. He remembers all his co-workers vomiting into buckets.
The industry standard is to not provide sick leave, Quinlan said. And kitchen workers know they're replaceable, so they feel intense pressure not to miss shifts.
Rhode Island passed a paid sick leave mandate last month. California and New Jersey already had similar policies, and at least five other states have pending bills or task forces to study the subject.