ANNAPOLIS — Eastern Shore legislators called the last minute death of the highly debated paid sick leave bill in the Maryland Senate a “huge sigh of relief” for seasonal business owners.
As the final minutes of the 90-day legislative session wound down on Monday night, the controversial bill, which would grant one hour of paid sick leave per 30 hours of work (totaling 56 hours or seven days of paid sick leave per year) to hundreds of thousands of Marylanders, failed to make it to a vote in the Senate, and thusly met its demise for the fourth straight year.
Locally, seasonal businesses were concerned because the bill would have required every business with more than 15 employees, both full and part time, to pay their workers’ sick leave.
Additionally, the bill would also require companies with fewer than 15 employees to offer the same amount of unpaid sick leave. The bill had written in exemptions for employees younger than 18 and seasonal employees who work fewer than 90 days a year as well as all agriculture workers.
“This bill caused great concern and anxiety, not just on the shore, but all across this great state of Maryland,” said Sen. Jim Mathias (D-District 38A). “We have to find a balance between helping our workers and protecting the employers.”
Yet, this year, the bill gained momentum in Annapolis and breezed through the House of Delegates last week in a decisive 89-54 vote. All 49 House Republicans and six Democrats voted against the bill in the House, including Republican Delegate Mary Beth Carozza, who pushed for an amendment to the bill, which would give an exemption to businesses who only employ people for 120 days or less.
She claimed the 120-day exemption was much more conducive to the summer season in Ocean City and seasonal businesses’ hiring habits.
The amendment, which failed in the house, but was “most certainly heard” in the Senate, according to Carozza, was an increase of the 90-day exemption for employers, and was an attempt to somewhat mirror the complete exemption given to the agriculture jobs.
“I absolutely believe that the 120-day amendment played a role in the Senate’s decision to let the clock run out,” said Carozza. “I think the collective feedback that we got from concerned business owners on the shore and across the state pointed out the unintended consequences of this bill in its current form for seasonal businesses.”
Mathias says there very well could have been the support to pass the bill, but the timing surrounding the House’s passage of the bill left debate and vote in the Senate an unlikely mountain to climb.
“This version of the bill was simply unrealistic,” said Mathias. “Our economy continues to recover from the recession and I think people are finally starting to adjust to the Affordable Care Act. Our employers pay what they know they can afford, and they want to take care of their people.”
Yet, despite the bill’s dramatic rise, and deflating demise in the final minutes of the session, neither Mathias nor Carozza believe this debate is over.
“I expect it to come back next session,” she said, “but, I believe advocates will be ready for it.”
Yet, advocates on the other side of the argument, including Delegate Dereck Davis (D-District 25) say the argument about similar legislation is little more than political fear-mongering.
“Every time we try to do something for workers, it’s going to kill business,” he said. “It’s going to chase people out. You hear that time and time again, it’s going to be a job killer, yet, we’re still here.”
Mathias says if this bill eventually passes, he hopes it will create a balance and not eliminate jobs altogether.
“With the growth of the online marketplace and technology, there are many employers who may put touch screens on the table in the restaurants rather than hire waiters and waitresses,” said Mathias. “The evolution is happening, and there is growing support for this bill. So, we need to really be concerned about keeping these positions, having people do the job, and not losing these jobs to technology.”
Carozza also concedes a version of the bill may pass someday, but she is both hopeful and confident that the 120-day exemption for seasonal businesses will eventually find its way into the bill.
“You can have a paid sick leave bill that works for both the workers and the employers,” she said. “I could support a bill like this if the seasonal businesses were given that 120-day exemption.”