Montgomery County Needs A Strong Paid Sick Leave Bill

By Justin Vest:

Montgomery County is poised to join a growing number of US jurisdictions requiring paid sick leave for nearly all employees, but the interests of low-paid workers in the bill heading toward passage are endangered by forces trying to weaken it.

There are currently only three states plus D.C. that have passed mandatory paid sick leave laws–two of which will be implemented later this summer. An additional 17 cities have or will implement mandatory paid sick leave policies between now and February 2016 including such bastions of progressivism as San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, and New York City. Montgomery County may soon join their ranks as the County Council prepares to vote on bill 60-14, Earned Sick and Safe Leave.

The Health and Human Services Committee held a work session on June 11 in which each member expressed their support for the bill. However a number of issues arose which threaten to weaken the existing bill. In its current form, every full time worker in Montgomery County would accrue 1 hour of sick and safe leave for every 30 hours worked up to a total of 56 hours per calendar year. There are 100,000 workers in the county currently uncovered by any sick leave provisions. The bill was unanimously passed out of committee. With an additional two cosponsors, it is expected to pass the full Council by a vote of at least five to four.

 At this juncture, the most pressing concern for progressives should be to ensure a strong bill is passed that protects all workers. The council’s Health and Human Services Committee considered several amendments and the full council could entertain more with the potential to water down this important piece of legislation.

 It is typically the most vulnerable workers who lack paid sick days including those in low paying jobs, women, and people of color. Montgomery County has had a majority minority population since 2010 and significant wage disparities exist across racial groups. In 2012, the average hourly wage in Maryland for whites was $21, only $17 for African Americans, and $14 for Hispanic residents. Nearly 122,000 Montgomery County residents lived in households eligible to receive the Earned Income Tax Credit in 2012 which is specifically designed to assist families with low or moderate incomes. Of those claiming the credit, the median income was only $12,595. These are the workers who will benefit the most from paid sick days. Passing a strong paid sick leave bill should be common sense, but must be designed to address the needs of the most vulnerable County residents rather than business interests. However, the Council is considering amendments that would do just that. Among those considered by the Committee were numerous questions of implementation including whether employees earning higher wages should be subject to the provisions of the bill, whether to impose different implementation dates on unionized workers, and if any exemptions should be provided for small businesses.

The Committee recommended exempting workers earning more than three times the County minimum wage or $52,416 annually for a full time employee working 52 weeks per year. It is clear the Committee’s intent is to provide paid sick leave to low-wage workers, the merits of which are not being disputed here. While exempting certain workers such as highly paid consultants -- who have the flexibility to make their own schedules – is reasonable, extending this rationale to other sectors dependent on contract labor such as construction would be a mistake. Seasonal and contract laborers, while not fitting neatly into our traditional conceptions of full time workers, are no less vulnerable to illness. It makes sense that these workers would not be eligible to use paid sick days at times they would otherwise not be paid due to a lack of work, but there is no reason to exclude them otherwise. Those earning salaries in excess of three times the minimum wage should also be covered by this bill. It is true that these workers likely already receive some form of paid time off, which would not change as long as it meets the minimum standards set by the bill. However, if they do not enjoy such benefits, they should be no less entitled to them. An annual income of $52,416 is certainly significant compared to the $17,472 a full time minimum wage worker in Montgomery County would earn, but it is by no means a comfortable income. For instance, a Montgomery County family of four with two working adults, a preschooler, and a school-age child needs to earn approximately $83,000 annually to make ends meet. Incomes three times the County minimum wage are more reflective of those earned by low level professionals, government employees, and nonprofit personnel and should not be construed as “high wages” or exempted from the benefits offered by paid sick leave.

 It was generally agreed upon by the Committee not to exclude workers covered by collective bargaining agreements although it was suggested that these workers could negotiate a paid sick leave policy if they desired one. There was discussion, however, of delaying enforcement for these workers until their current collective bargaining contracts expire. To do so is to embrace the flawed logic already rejected by the Committee and effectively punishes unionized workers for not successfully negotiating their own paid sick leave policies. With the economic deck so heavily stacked against workers, especially those in low-wage jobs, it should be little surprise that unions alone are not a cure-all solution, but that government and unions should instead work in tandem to better the lives of workers. In this case, that should mean all workers are made eligible for paid sick days regardless of union membership.

The most contentious issue during the hearing was whether small businesses should be excluded from the policy based on the assumption that they are less capable of meeting the bill’s requirements. Non-Committee co-sponsor Mark Elrich was quick to counter this argument saying he would prefer businesses to raise prices and simply acknowledge that providing benefits to workers is a cost of doing business. Exempting small businesses and other proposals such as implementing a tiered system that would provide fewer sick days to employees of small businesses will only serve to reduce the level of protection currently offered by this bill. The Council currently seems poised to allow small businesses with up to five or 10 employees to provide no paid sick days to their employees. But: Everyone gets sick. This is a simple reality and no employee should be faced with the hard choice of putting the public's health at risk by going to work while ill or sending a sick child to school because they cannot afford to forfeit a day’s pay and stay home. No one should face the severe consequences of hunger or eviction for taking time off to go to the doctor or to take care of a sick child. The efforts of Council member Leventhal to introduce this bill and the support of his co-sponsors should be applauded, but if Montgomery County is to do what's best for the nearly one in five workers without paid sick leave and be a model for future state-wide legislation, then we must pass a strong, pro-worker bill.