Montgomery County Paid Sick Leave Bill Clears Important Hurdle

Montgomery County Paid Sick Leave Bill Clears Important Hurdle

Bid to require county employers to offer paid sick leave heads to full County Council, though major issues remain

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County Council President George Leventhal

Aaron Kraut

A bill that would require all employers in Montgomery County to provide their employees with up to a week of paid sick leave will head to the full County Council later this month, though there will likely be further debate on some crucial elements of the law.

The council’s Health and Human Services Committee Thursday recommended several minor changes to the legislation – titled the “Earned Sick and Safe Leave” bill – while also recommending it go before the full council for a possible vote at its June 23 session.

The bill, introduced last November, would mandate that any employer operating in the county provide paid sick leave for employees who work in the county.

Employers would have to provide paid leave at the rate of at least one hour for every 30 hours an employee works in the county, up to 56 hours in a calendar year.

The bill’s proponents, including a coalition of social organizations and Council members George Leventhal, Nancy Navarro and Marc Elrich, say the  goal is to help employees on the low-end of the salary spectrum who might choose to work sick instead of take time off because they aren’t currently provided paid time off.

A host of business organizations, including the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce, expressed major reservations about the bill, especially on the higher costs it could bring to small business owners.

Before the hearing Thursday, Leventhal’s staff passed out copies of a fact sheet from U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez, the county resident and former member of council who’s pushing for more paid sick leave nationwide.

Leventhal said that in the past, he felt “the role of county government, ought to be more narrow than to impinge on the issues of wages, hours and benefits.

“Except that we have a dysfunctional Congress and I think that puts all of us in elected office who want to respond to real needs and get things done in the position of addressing issues that in prior years, county government might not have put on its plate,” Leventhal said.

Navarro and Elrich expressed similar thoughts.

Family Values at Work, one of a handful of national groups pushing for the county bill, estimates it would bring paid sick days to almost 100,000 county residents who don’t get them now.

Despite passing the bill out of committee, Council members Roger Berliner and Craig Rice said they weren’t completely comfortable with the idea of imposing the same paid sick leave requirements on small businesses as large ones— many of which already provide paid sick leave or less specified paid time off.

“If you’re the local coffee shop trying to compete with the Starbucks, the Panera, it is a challenge because they can afford to do those things,” Rice said. “That’s why they’re doing it.”

Berliner said he’d like the council to consider going to a tiered system in use in other jurisdictions around the country, in which businesses of five employees or less would be required to provide fewer paid sick days or, more simply, unpaid sick leave.

“In all of these other progressive jurisdictions – Seattle, Portland, New York City, the state of Massachusetts – all of these jurisdictions have recognized the disproportionate impact financially of paid sick leave on the smallest of businesses,” Berliner said. “It is trying to balance the impact.”

Other issues that could arise when the full nine-member council takes the bill up June 23 include whether unused paid sick leave should carry over to the next calendar year.

The three-member committee, made up of Leventhal, Berliner and Rice, agreed to move back the implementation date of the new law from Oct. 1, 2015 to Oct. 1, 2016 – a move that would provide more time for employers to prepare and the county to budget for more enforcement officials.

The committee also agreed that the bill shouldn’t preempt any paid sick leave standards in existing collective bargaining agreements between employers and unions. The change would exempt those companies from having to comply until a current collective bargaining agreement expires.

Ruth Martin, senior campaign director for MomsRising, said she’s pleased that the bill will go before the full council. MomsRising is one of the groups supporting the bill.

“We’re excited that the bill moved out of the committee. We of course want to see a really strong bill and we think Montgomery County is in position to be a leader,” said Martin, who lives in Silver Spring.

She added that she would like to see every employee covered, including those who work for small businesses.

“Everybody gets sick, so everybody needs a chance to get better,” Martin said. “I think some of our most vulnerable folks are the ones working at these small businesses.”

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