Paid Sick Leave Supported in Poll, But Businesses Leery

By Becca Heller,

ANNAPOLIS—An overwhelming 82% of Maryland voters support a proposal to force all employers to provide paid sick days based upon the number of hours worked, according to a poll done for Working Matters, a coalition of more than 80 groups advocating for paid sick leave.

This poll released to Tuesday comes in advance of hearings Wednesday on several pieces of legislation that seek to expand worker’s rights and increase employers’ obligations including The Earned Sick and Safe Time Act and the controversial initiative to raise the state minimum wage. The bills will be debated in committee on Wednesday.

The Jobs Opportunities Task Force, which supports the measure, is a Baltimore non-profit organization aimed at improving skills and opportunities for low-skill, low-wage workers.

Majority from all parties supported

The poll, conducted by Hart Research Associates, showed that 93% of Democrats, 78% of independents, and 64% of Republicans supported the initiative, sponsored by Del. John Olszewski, a Baltimore County Democrat. The poll results suggest a general consensus among Maryland voters that workers should have the right to take a sick day without worrying about the economic consequences of missing a day’s income.

“It’s no surprise that Marylanders strongly support a bill that will improve the health of working families and strengthen the state’s workforce,” said Melissa Broome, a policy advocate for the Job Opportunities Task Force. “Marylanders understand workers should not have to make the impossible choice between their financial security and their health or the health of their families.”

However, not everyone supports this bill, as it threatens a small business’s ability to balance out the needs of its employees with fluctuating economic stress. CORRECTION: Under the proposed law, which grants one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours worked, a full-time employee could earn up to seven sick days a year, or 56 hours.

Business groups raise concerns

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce opposes the bill, said chamber president Kathy Snyder.

“Most companies with 50 or more employees offer some kind of paid time off. But for these very small businesses, they may be between a rock and a hard place,” Snyder said. “So to have a state mandate that every employer would have to provide 7 days of sick leave would make things very difficult for small businesses.”

Current Maryland law does not require employers to provide any sick leave, paid or unpaid, according to the Department of Legislative Services. The only requirement is the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide unpaid sick leave for the birth, adoption or foster placement of a child, or for serious medical conditions.

Raising minimum wage

Pushing worker’s rights even further is a bill that seeks to raise Maryland minimum wage from $7.25 to $10 per/hour. The bill, sponsored by Del. Aisha Braveboy, D-Prince George’s, comes after a number of statewide labor campaigns. With 57 co-sponsors, it was introduced just days before President Barack Obama announced an initiative to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 in the State of the Union Address.

“Even with the tax relief we’ve put in place, a family with two kids that earns the minimum wage still lives below the poverty line,” Obama said. “That’s wrong. That’s why, since the last time this Congress raised the minimum wage, nineteen states have chosen to bump theirs even higher.”

If Maryland passed this bill, it would be the twentieth state to raise minimum wage above the federal rate and put the state at the very top of the pyramid, with the highest minimum wage currently belonging to Washington state at $9.19 per hour.

“Marylanders are proud to lead the nation in income and education,” Braveboy said in a statement. “Raising the minimum wage is not only the right thing to do, it’s what we must do to remain economically competitive. An increase will help put money in the pockets of low wage workers who will pump it right back into our local stores, gas stations and restaurants. “

Getting this bill through General Assembly would be no small feat, however.

Higher minimum wage could be a burden on businesses

Because the proposal would require businesses to comply with the wage raise, many small businesses fear the financial strain they would face as a result of paying workers more, and larger businesses look to certain decreases in their profits.

“The Maryland Chamber’s concern is for the small businesses in Maryland,” said Kathy Snyder, president of the Maryland Chamber.. “If the wage did get up to ten dollars an hour it would cost small employers about $5,700 a year per person. That number doesn’t even include the payroll package the employer is required to provide. If they don’t have increased sales, where’s the money going to come from?”

Additionally, some groups opposing this bill are concerned with how the bill could impact the very workers it’s trying to protect.

“Increased labor costs will dampen job growth during an already difficult economy, will mean fewer jobs, less hours worked, and reduced benefits,” the National Federation of Independent Business announced in a statement.

Supporters of the initiative believe that higher wages would act as an economic impetus in the state, putting more spending money in the wallets of the working class and directly stimulating business growth.

“Research has found that more than 500,000 Marylanders would benefit from the increase, putting $778 million more in their pockets in the next two years,” Raise Maryland, a coalition of groups including labor unions, said in a statement. “At the same time, businesses would benefit from nearly half a billion dollars in new consumer spending and would create more than 4,000 new full-time jobs as they expand to meet increased demand.”

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