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Lawmakers consider sick leave mandate

By Colleen Quinn
State House News Service / July 15, 2011

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Paid sick days are a basic right and should be granted to workers by all employers, proponents of a proposed law said yesterday, as business groups argued that the mandate will hurt job growth during an anemic economic recovery.

Members of the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development heard testimony from employee advocacy groups, their colleagues, and from workers who urged lawmakers to require all businesses, regardless of size, to offer full-time employees the ability to earn up to seven paid sick days per year. According to the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, more than 1 million people lack any sick pay benefits.

Proponents said those who do not receive benefits are primarily workers who can least afford to take time off without pay. Some advocates called it a women’s issue because mothers often must choose between caring for a sick child or going to work.

Last month, Connecticut passed a law requiring paid sick days. San Francisco passed a similar measure in 2007. Paid sick days are also the focus this week at an event in Washington, D.C., dubbed the 2011 National Summit on Paid Sick Days and Paid Family Leave.

While similar proposals have faltered in the past, Massachusetts lawmakers who support the law said it has a good chance of passing this time around, despite business opposition.

Representative Kay Khan, Democrat of Newton and one of the lead sponsors of the bill, said lawmakers who support the measure have met with business groups to understand their objections.

“It is carefully designed to also take into consideration the business community,’’ Khan said. “We would like to get them on board here and work with them.’’

But employers argue it will hurt job growth in the state and hurt the economic recovery.

“I believe in these very difficult economic times when local employers are still not growing due in part to the unaffordable costs of our first-in-the-nation health care mandate, the last thing we need is to further hurt small employers with more state government-imposed costs and red tape,’’ Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said in a statement.

Tim Sullivan, legislative and communications director for the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, said business opposition to the proposed mandate was expected and asserted that businesses overstate the probable impact of the proposed policy on their bottom lines.

“I fully expect it to be a day of business karaoke,’’ Sullivan said before the hearing. “They will all get up and sing the same song over and over that this is going to be economic doomsday.’’

Sullivan described it as a women’s issue because many mothers work part time or in lower wage jobs that do not pay benefits.

Last year, Lilly Ledbetter, whose name has become synonymous with efforts to support equal pay for women, visited the State House to testify in favor of the bill, along with Victoria Kennedy.

Quoting the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who filed similar legislation shortly before he died, Sullivan said during the hearing, “No one should have to choose between the child they love and the job they need.’’

Representative Martha Walz, Democrat of Boston, said she learned at an early age the importance of paid sick days from her mother.

“When I was younger, my mother had to choose between the children she loved and the job she needed,’’ she said.

When Walz was in elementary school she would have to stay home alone sick, and she joked that she learned to master heating up Campbell’s soup.

“How sad it is that was the choice my mother was forced to make so she could support,’’ her family, Walz said. “It is a dilemma too many people in this country face.’’