Journalism / New Haven Register

‘This was not the year’ for sick-leave bill

Saturday, June 20, 2009
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

When a bill requiring employers to provide paid sick leave to workers passed the state House of Representatives in late May, supporters were optimistic it would become law.

In 2007 and 2008, similar legislation had passed the state Senate, but the House failed to take it up. After speaking with senators, members of the Working Families Party, which was backing the bill, thought they had lined up the 19 votes necessary for passage.

But in the final days of the regular session, House Bill 6187 did not make it to the Senate floor. It died when the session ended at midnight June 3.

State Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, said he decided not to support the bill because of the economic climate. Meyer voted in favor of paid sick leave in 2007 and 2008.

“To some of us, this was not the year to put another cost on business,” he said. “I felt that this year, when we have more than 4,000 businesses closing in Connecticut and 65,000 people have lost their jobs, that the last thing we should do is impose an additional cost on our Connecticut employers.”

Proponents of the bill — which would have allowed employees to accrue paid sick days for every 40 hours worked — argued it could save employers money by avoiding the costs of “presenteeism,” a term for employees coming to work sick. The bill would have applied to companies with more than 50 employees, who would have to be 18 years or older and work at least 10 hours a week.

Jon Green, the executive director of Working Families Party, said that after speaking with Meyer about the bill he thought the senator would support it. But, when the Senate Democrats caucused the last week of the session, it became apparent Meyer would vote no.

“He said he thought it was a good bill and something he supported in the past, and wanted to talk about pushing the implementation date back and that was something he thought could get him back on board with it,” Green said. “We met in the Capitol and talked about a mechanism to do that.”

Green said the House’s amended version of the bill had the effect of pushing back the implementation date because no one would be able to use the sick days until they had clocked 1,040 hours of work after Jan. 1. With those amendments, Green said he believed Meyer would vote for the bill.

“That’s what we talked about, and he said that he thought that sounds good and gave every indication that based on that change that he felt he would support the policy,” Green said.

Green noted Sens. Bob Duff, D-25, and Jonathan Harris, D-5, also voted for the bill in the past, but were not supporting it this year. He said the Working Families Party knew in advance not to count on those votes. Last year, the bill passed the Senate by a 20-16 vote.

Meyer pointed out he voted against the bill in the Judiciary Committee in April. He added he did not say he would vote for the bill, and that he thought the effective date should have been in fall 2010.

“I don’t think we got specific enough when we talked with (the Working Families Party),” he said. “I did meet with a representative of that party and we did talk about getting the postponement of the effective date, but we didn’t get into the specifics unfortunately because I was looking, again, at the fall of next year and not at the beginning of the year.”

The original bill would have allowed employees to earn 52 hours, or 6 1/2 days, of paid sick leave at a rate of one hour for each for 40 hours worked, effective Jan. 1 for people who had already been employed for at least six months. The House amended the legislation to limit the amount of sick leave to 32 hours in 2010 and 40 hours in 2011 and subsequent years, and to start the clock for accruing leave Jan. 1 for all employees.

“The outcome of that would be to say that no employee could use their paid sick time until July of 2010,” Green said.

Meyer said he spoke with a number of employers in his district, particularly restaurant owners, who said the bill would hurt them because they would have to pay both the sick employee and a replacement. State Department of Labor statistics show restaurant workers are among the least likely to receive paid sick leave.

NOT ENOUGH VOTES

When it became apparent to supporters and opponents of the legislation that it did not have the votes to pass, it was not called for discussion in the Senate.

Kia Murrell, associate counsel for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, said she was pleased with the results. The CBIA had lobbied against the bill.

“The bill ultimately was not called because it would have died on a vote of 18-18,” she said.

Murrell said the bill would have put state businesses at a disadvantage because Connecticut would be the only state with the requirement.

“The current state economy doesn’t lend itself to enacting new legislative mandates on business at a time when so many are struggling,” she said.

Bruce Deegan, a U.S. Postal Service worker from North Branford who supported the bill, said he was disappointed with the outcome. Deegan said he spoke to Meyer at a meeting in Killingworth in May and believed Meyer would vote in favor of paid sick leave.

“Based on things he said at the meeting and then the fact that it did end up having a later starting date, like he said he favored, I expected that we would have his support and I was extremely disappointed,” Deegan said.

He added that he became an advocate for paid sick leave after seeing a family member go to work while sick.

“I’ve known people with everything from the flu to Lyme disease who have gone into work when they would have been better staying home, so I think it really is about human decency,” he said.

Meyer said he expects to support paid sick leave legislation again in the future.

“When we get back to a reasonable economic time I will be taking a very different look at this bill indeed,” Meyer said.

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