(Updated at 6:30 p.m.) Connecticut took another step toward becoming the first state in the nation to require some employers to offer paid sick time to employees when the Senate passed a measure Wednesday that will apply to service businesses with more than 50 employees.
The 18-17 vote followed a six hour debate after which the crowd in the gallery erupted with applause.
Under the measure, employees would accrue one hour of sick time for every 40 hours worked. They could begin using that time after working 680 hours and will not be able to use more than five days per year. The bill was amended to exclude employees who work for YMCAs or in the manufacturing sector.
Supporters of the measure say it will stop employees from going to work sick to avoid losing pay, which in turn will prevent them from passing their illness along to other employees or patrons.
The bill’s proponent, Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia said, “I am very proud that Connecticut is in the lead on this issue.”
However, opponents of the bill said the fact that the 49 other states have opted against requiring paid sick days is evidence that it’s a costly and job-killing idea.
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney pointed to Connecticut’s unemployment rate, hovering at around 9 percent, and said it’s because of decisions made at the Capitol. Mandating paid sick time is just one more signal to businesses that Connecticut is an unfriendly place to do business.
“If you don’t think there are other states out there waiting to eat our lunch, pun intended, when we pass this bill you’re fooling yourself,” he said, alluding to the negative impact he said it would have on the restaurant industry.
Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, agreed.
“Why can’t this legislature understand that every time government, state or local government, steps in front of businesses and businesses’ relationship with their customers, every time government steps in the way, it slows down the economy,” he said, later adding that if he hears Gov. Dannel P. Malloy say “one more time that Connecticut is open for business, I’m going to cringe.”
But Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said it is unfortunate that the measure has become a “lightning rod” for that sentiment. Kissel, who has long supported that measure, said he agreed the legislature has passed a number of measures destructive to businesses but said the paid sick days bill does not have to be the symbol of that idea.
“I am hoping beyond hope that the administration and legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle will all work together for the best ends of our constituents, and debates regarding implementers and other things do not spill in to this debate,” he said.
Sen. Gary LeBeau, D-East Hartford, said the fiscal impact the measure would have on businesses would be limited. In the long run it may actually save money by reducing turnover, he said.
LeBeau compared the concept to health insurance policies offered by employers. Companies develop systems to share with employees the costs of health insurance, he said. There is nothing in the measure to stop businesses from doing the same with paid sick days, he said.
Prague said the cost to businesses would amount to around a tenth of 1 percent of companies’ gross income.
Sen. Len Suzio, R-Wallingford, said that it was wrong to assess the costs from a gross revenue perspective. Instead it should be calculated through the companies’ profit margin since most small businesses operate on a very small profit margin, he said.
As the measure has made its way through the legislative process much of the discussion has focused on its potential impact on the food service industry. Prague said she has talked with restaurant owners who offer time off for their sick cooks but not for their waiters and waitresses, who could easily pass their illness along to patrons.
McKinney, who said he has made a living in the restaurant industry, said that’s not the reality of the industry. Wait staff have always traded shifts with their colleagues when they need time off, he said. Besides, a restaurant manager sends home sick staff members because they could ruin the business, he said. The paid sick bill assumes too much, he said.
“You actually think you know more about how to run a food business than the person whose been doing it for a living. That’s what this bill says,” he said. “There isn’t an owner or manager of a food service business in the state of Connecticut who would allow someone who serves food to come in with a flu or a cold.”
Opponents also criticized the bill’s two major exemptions—YMCAs and manufacturers. Those exemptions were likely added to achieve enough votes to reach the requisite number of votes. Both Sen. Edward Meyer and Sen. Beth Bye had reservations about voting for the measure because of organizations in their districts.
Last week Meyer said he was still unsure about the bill. A YMCA in his district had told him that paid sick days mandate would be detrimental to the nonprofit, he said. But were the amended to exclude YMCAs, “it would help,” Meyer said.
Prague said when she met with members of the YMCA, she learned how varied work days are for employees of the establishment. No one employee works the same post for an entire shift, she said. Instead they may serve as a life guard in the morning and then instruct children later on, she said.
“It would be administratively impossible for them to keep track of the hours for their employees,” she said.
McKinney, who said he serves on the board of directors of a YMCA in Westport, did not seem convinced by that answer. He said the organization is the largest daycare provider in the town.
“So here we are passing a bill and everybody who supports it says this is about food service, child care, elder care. And yet the largest child care provider in the town of Westport is exempted. So I guess some children are more important than others,” he said. “That’s what you’re saying unless we made a political calculation to get votes.”
Prague said she also spoke to manufacturers, who told her they thought they shouldn’t be subject to the measure because most already had negotiated contracts with their employees that provide time off. There was validity in their concerns, so they were accommodated, she said.
“If you have a negotiated contract then you don’t have to add a mandate from us to offer paid sick time because when you negotiate a contract it usually includes health benefits, sick time, wages and so forth,” she said.
When Bye rose to support the legislation Wednesday, she admitted her track record on paid sick days has been mixed. She said that track record reflects how torn she is on the issue. Both sides of the argument make good points, she said.
Republicans filed over 100 amendment in advance of the debate. They called six of them before the measure passed at 6:30 p.m..
Last week when the bills passage through the Senate was uncertain, Malloy spoke with senators who were on the fence, urging them to support the measure. After it cleared the chamber the governor released a statement applauding their decision.
“I applaud the 18 senators who voted for this bill. This piece of legislation is a reasonable compromise that represents good public policy. It exempts industries where appropriate, it ensures that the benefit won’t be abused, and most importantly, it protects public health. It shouldn’t be the case that people who are frontline service workers – people who serve us food, who care for our children, and who work in hospitals, for example – are forced to go to work sick to keep their jobs. It’s my hope that the House of Representatives will take up this piece of legislation, pass it, and I can sign it into law,” he said.
Joe Brennan, senior vice president of public policy for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, an organization strongly opposed to the measure, said it may have been Malloy’s influence that pushed the bill through.
“Prior to that intervention we felt pretty confident we had enough votes to stop it. After that intervention we did not have enough votes. It appears it did sway a couple people. There were some people that voted no consistently on this bill in the past that voted yes this evening,” he said.
Brennan said CBIA will be fighting for every vote in the House in an effort to stop the measure, which he said has gotten a visceral reaction from businesses.
“They do not think it’s the place of the state to micro manage their businesses,” he said.
Brennan stopped short of saying whether votes cast on the bill Wednesday evening will be a deciding factor on who CBIA endorses in future elections but said it will be difficult to endorse anyone who voted yes on a measure so hated by the business community.
Nicole Griffin, who represents the Connecticut Restaurant Association, agreed with CBIA’s assessment of the measure’s impact. She said she has heard from restaurants Wednesday who have told her they are seriously considering closing up shop if the bill is adopted.
“There’s a system in place that works at restaurants where you call and you switch shifts and it’s worked just fine,” she said.
The vote in the House is not expected to be as close as it was in the Senate.