HARTFORD — More than three years after Connecticut passed the nation’s first state law mandating paid sick days, advocates are pressing for a sweeping expansion of the landmark legislation.
“We were the first and now we have the worst law in the country,” said Lindsay Farrell, executive director of the Connecticut Working Families Party, a politically powerful coalition of labor unions and liberal activists. “People are really proud of being the first state, but if we’re going to continue to celebrate that … we can’t have a law that is so much worse than everybody else’s.”
The business lobby has long viewed the mandate as a burden that adds to the cost of doing business in the state. It vows to wage a vigorous battle against expanding the law.
“That flies in the face of what we want to do,” said Eric Gjede, a lawyer who oversees labor and employment issues for the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, which represents 10,000 companies throughout the state. “That certainly would take us backward. We’ll definitely be opposing that.”
The debate in Connecticut comes as President Barack Obama makes a high-profile push for a federal law allowing employees to earn up to seven paid sick days a year. The Healthy Families Act, co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, would let workers use that time to care for themselves or a sick family member, obtain preventive care or deal with the effects of domestic violence. The White House is also calling on cities and states to pass similar laws.
“How many working parents know that sinking feeling from sending their child off to school with a fever?” Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett wrote Wednesday on LinkedIn. “How many Americans have to show up to work when battling an illness even when they know they won’t be at their best, it will lengthen their recovery time and they may likely spread their sickness to others?”
Tweaking the state’s paid sick leave law is not the only idea aimed at helping working parents and caregivers. Lawmakers are also expected to consider another initiative touted by Obama — paid family and medical leave.
In Connecticut many, but not all, employers with 50 or more employees are required to provide five paid sick days a year. Since the law took effect in 2011, two other states — Massachusetts and California — have approved paid sick leave mandates with more liberal employee caps. More than a dozen cities, including New York City, have adopted similar policies.
The Massachusetts law, passed by ballot initiative in November, requires employers with more than 11 employees to provide up to 40 hours of paid sick leave annually; the law takes effect July 1. California’s law, which also goes into effect in July, requires almost all public- and private-sector employers to provide at least three paid sick days a year.
“We were once a model for other states but now we’re falling behind,” Rep. Peter Tercyak, D-New Britain, and co-chairman of the legislature’s labor committee, said recently.
No specific bills have been filed, but several key lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled legislature say they expect proposals to be raised that would increase the number of employees eligible for the benefit.
Thanks to a series of political compromises, manufacturers, salaried workers, temporary workers and workers at nationally chartered nonprofit groups are exempt, as are certain categories of employees not specifically listed in the law.
Sen. Gary Holder-Winfield, co-chairman of the labor committee, said he backs the idea of expanding the paid sick leave mandate to firms with fewer than 50 employees, although he cautioned that he would have to see the specific language before endorsing any bill.
The current law “cuts out a lot of people, and those people have families that need taking care of just like everybody else,” Holder-Winfield said. “If we can find a way that doesn’t really damage what’s going on with the businesses in the state, then why wouldn’t we endeavor to do so?”
Gjede of the CBIA said that the existing law is burdensome enough. He cited a report by the Freedom Foundation that found that paid sick leave policies in Connecticut and cities such as San Francisco have hurt the business community.
“It has not helped retain employees. It has done nothing that it was supposed to do, except cost employers money,” he said.
But advocates cite another study by an economist at the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research that found that paid sick leave in Connecticut is a “non-event” for the economy as a whole, although a few firms have seen higher costs.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has long been an outspoken supporter of paid sick leave and made the state’s law a cornerstone of his re-election campaign. On Thursday, he issued a press release expressing pride in the state’s leadership role on the issue.
But when his spokesman, Mark Bergman, was asked if the governor backed enhancements to the law, he was noncommittal. “Gov. Malloy is proud to have led Connecticut as we became the first state in the nation to pass paid sick leave so that no one has to face the choice of calling in sick or losing their job,” Bergman said. “The governor looks forward to a dialogue with stakeholders and legislators on this important issue.”
House Speaker Brendan Sharkey is similarly taking a “wait-and-see” approach.
“With the session just beginning, the speaker will wait to assess what the committee comes up with and how it relates to what is happening in other states,” said his spokesman, Larry Perosino.
Sen. Tony Hwang, the top Republican on the labor committee, did not support the initial bill in 2011 because the state was still digging out of a recession. “It’s four years later and the economy is still in a state of flux,” he said. “In anything we do, it’s really important that we are sensitive to the balance between what is right and proper not only for our employees but for our businesses to be able to compete on a national basis.”
Vicki Shabo, vice president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, called Connecticut’s law “a great first step” and predicted that several other states, notably Oregon and Vermont, will soon follow suit.
“But,” she added, “as more laws have passed, Connecticut’s an outlier in terms of the number of people who are excluded.”