Disagreement Brewing Over Earned Sick Time

An effort to make business-friendly changes to the earned sick time law passed by voters in November has encountered opposition from the organization that led the push for the ballot law.

Sen. Michael Rodrigues filed a bill that would rewrite the law set to go into effect July 1, and said he hopes to meet with the law's supporters and try to seek some middle ground.

In amending a law passed through ballot referendum, the Westport Democrat will be attempting a delicate maneuver and he was adamant that the changes he proposes would not undo the will of the voters.

"It is no one's intention to eliminate the law. The law is the law. It was passed by over 70 percent of the voters in Massachusetts, and it's going to remain on the books," Rodrigues told the News Service on Friday. Rodrigues has plans to meet with the law's proponents and said he would approach changes "carefully" and seek a "collaborative method."

The bill would provide additional protections to employers, allowing them to use stricter sick leave policies and exempting them from certain legal liabilities, and it would push back the law's start date to Jan. 1, 2016. Already, Rodrigues' legislation has engendered opposition from supporters of the law that he wants to change.

"This fifteen page 'clarification' bill from the same business lobbyists who have always opposed earned sick time would not only delay implementation until next year, it would overhaul the ballot question and circumvent the will of the voters," said Raise Up Massachusetts in a statement to the News Service. "Earned sick time had a nineteen point margin of victory in November. The legislature should reject any attempts to weaken the earned sick time law. The one million Massachusetts residents without paid sick time today cannot afford to wait any longer."

Backed by activists who also mobilized for the recent minimum wage hike, the law provides up to 40 hours of paid sick time at all but the smallest organizations, and employees would earn one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked. The paid sick-time statute, which would be enforced by Attorney General Maura Healey, applies to employers with 11 or more employees, while smaller businesses would be required to provide up to 40 hours of unpaid sick leave.

Rodrigues' bill exempts top executives and interns from the count of employees that determines whether a business must provide paid sick leave and requires state agencies to study the impact of the law. His bill also allows employers to make stricter requirements for calling in sick, and for providing certification after an absence of 12 consecutively scheduled hours.

The legislation would allow employers to determine the increments of time available to be taken off. Rodrigues said the law passed by voters allows employees to take time off in smaller increments, which he said can be troublesome at some businesses.

Rodrigues said Gold Medal Baker, a Fall River business in his district that delivers bread around New England, needs its 40 truck drivers to depart early in the morning.

"The trucks have to leave at a certain time," he said, explaining that a driver who took off an hour at the start of the day would botch the delivery. He said, "It doesn't make any sense."

The Rodrigues bill would also specifically allow employers to operate attendance incentive policies and would exempt businesses from some legal liabilities. The bill says, "Earned sick time shall not be subject to treble damages," and states inadvertent payroll errors associated with sick time would not result in penalties.

The attorney general's office is gathering comments from the public in advance of writing regulations on the new law, according to an official.

Both the ballot question and Rodrigues' bill would allow time off for employees to attend routine medical visits, care for a family member or deal with the effects of domestic violence. The Rodrigues bill would define a child as no older than 18 years old while the law passed by voters is more open-ended about those family members.

The earned sick time ballot question won with 1.2 million votes in favor to about 859,000 opposed. The Legislature has received scorn from some quarters after lawmakers changed a 2000 ballot referendum that would have forced the income tax rate down to 5 percent. The economic triggers included in that law have so far reduced the income tax to 5.15 percent.

The Associated Industries of Massachusetts, a business group, raised problems it has with the earned sick time law. In a January blog post, AIM said it is concerned that interns, employees paid on commission and independent contractors could be wrapped into the law, and said employers worry that the law would eliminate "popular" paid time off systems.

"Each industry has different and individual concerns," said Rodrigues, who said he looks "forward to engaging both sides." He said, "The law is on the books. We just have to make it so that it can be workable so that responsible employers can do the right thing."

Gov. Charlie Baker proposed an alternative to the sick leave ballot question during the campaign.

"I didn't campaign against earned sick time, per se, but I didn't support the ballot question that was before the voters, and the main reason for that is it's the broadest, most restrictive, most comprehensive earned sick time policy in the country by a wide margin," Baker said Jan. 15 when asked by a radio show caller about taking a sick day himself.

Baker said he made a "series of proposals" during his campaign that he thought would be "easier" for small businesses and "more flexible" because companies vary in their policies. His proposals would have been less expensive to implement and easier to enforce than the ballot question, he added.

"I'm a big believer in earned sick time, I just felt that that law in particular would have some unintended consequences," Baker said. "We're going to implement it enthusiastically and see where it goes, and I certainly hope that it doesn't have some of the unintended consequences that I was concerned about."


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