After four hours of debate Monday the Appropriations Committee narrowly passed a measure that would require businesses with more than 50 employees to offer paid sick days to employees.
The measure would allow employees to start earning paid time off for sick days after working 520 hours. They would be able to start using that time after working 680 hours. Each employee could earn up to five days per year.
The sick time would be available for sick employees or employees whose children or family members are sick. It also would apply to victims of domestic violence.
The bulk of the debate centered on the policy aspects of the measure with Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, largely carrying the torch for the bill. She framed the issue as pressing social concern— many employees simply can’t afford to take a day off, she said.
“They are hourly employees; they need that money to put food on the table, to clothe their kids. So they go to work sick. They infect other people around them, but they have to have that day’s pay,” she said.
Prague said the measure would be beneficial for both workers and employers. Employees who feel valued and respected by their employers are more productive and loyal, she said.
Republicans said no one in the room thought it was a good idea for sick people to be forced to go to work, but they said paid sick time is a benefit that employers can use to be competitive.
Sen. Rob Kane, R-Watertown, who owns a small business, said he offers paid sick time to his employees but said benefits like that help him compete with larger businesses who may be able to pay their employees more.
He said that paid sick leave is a good thing to give employees “but that doesn’t mean I need the state of Connecticut to tell me to do it.”
Kane cited recent job losses throughout the state and said that businesses simply could not afford another mandate in the current economic climate. Kane also said the measure may inadvertently hurt the very same people it set out to help.
Employers may schedule employees so they never quite get to the requisite 520 hours, he said. Or, if they have 50 employees, they may shed one so the mandate does not apply, he said.
Rep. Marie Kirkley-Bey, D-Hartford, rejected that notion.
“I think that if you’re going to cut an employee to get under 50, then you’re a scrooge and if that’s all that matters to you then go right ahead,” she said.
Employers like that will develop a reputation as bad people to work for, and will eventually have trouble finding willing employees, she said.
Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, said it was wrong to characterize employers who don’t offer sick time as callous, profit-driven capitalists. He said he received a lot of correspondence before the debate. Most of it was from what he called “the usual suspects,” as in business advocates, but he said he also heard from YMCAs and the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist. Both groups opposed the measure, he said.
Prague said she had not heard from the nuns but has spoken with the YMCAs and is attempting to address their concerns.
Kirkley-Bey said the issue of sick time tends to hit women harder than men. She recalled a time when she had to leave work to take care of her children.
“I needed to be with my kids. I told the vice president if you feel that you need to let me go, then I will do what I have to do,” she said. “It’s very difficult to leave a kid with an ear ache or a fever.”
Rep. Toni Walker, who is co-chairwoman of the committee with Rep. Toni Harp, attempted to refocus the discussion. Following a comment by Rep. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, Walker said the role of the Appropriations Committee is to address the costs of measures. There will be time to debate the policy on floor, she said, and asked committee members stick to the bill’s finances.
Kane said changing the rules of the debate mid-stream was hardly fair, but Walker insisted.
In that vein, Miner said he had concerns about the bill’s fiscal note. The note said that if the bill were adopted, the Labor Department may experience more complaints as a result, and the department may have to hire additional staff to deal with those complaints.
Miner suggested the committee just amend the measure to say the department will hire additional staff.
“If the state of Connecticut truly believes it needs additional personnel, let’s just have at it,” he said.
But Harp opposed the amendment, saying she believed the Labor Department may be able to absorb those costs.
Miner’s amendment failed as did all other attempts to alter the measure. The bill — the first of 39 items on the committee’s agenda — passed on a 28 to 24 vote about 7 p.m. after four hours of debate.