GENERAL ASSEMBLY

R.I. companies oppose mandatory sick leave bill

But some lawmakers say there’s momentum to get measure passed

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Few companies say they want their employees to come to work sick.

But many are adamant that the government shouldn’t mandate paid sick time, and they’re opposing a bill being debated by state lawmakers that would allow all Rhode Island workers to earn up to seven days paid sick time per year.

The paid sick leave push is the centerpiece proposal of the General Assembly’s progressive wing, which has scored a few victories in recent years and gained seats in last November’s election.

Both Massachusetts and Connecticut mandate paid sick days, but the laws in those states are less generous to workers than the Rhode Island proposal, sponsored in the House by Providence Democrat Aaron Regunberg and in the Senate by Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin.

It’s unlikely the bill will become law in its current state, but House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello appears open to the idea and Regunberg last week said talks with the House leadership are under way on a compromise.

“I think it is fair to say that that process and those conversations are starting,” Regunberg said. “I’m feeling momentum. There is a lot of work left to do to continue to make the case and continuing to get input from the business community. But I feel very hopeful that we can get this done.”

What the bills do

The Regunberg-Goodwin bills would give workers an hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked, with a maximum of 56 hours of sick time, or seven days, per year. New workers can start using their accrued sick time 90 days after they are hired and unused time carries over into the next year (although it can’t exceed 56 hours.)

Employers would not have to pay unused sick time in cash if a worker leaves.

The reasons for which workers would be permitted to use sick time are fairly broad.

Workers would be allowed to take time off if they are sick, injured or need treatment, but also to take care of a family member or someone “whose close association with the employee is the equivalent of a family relationship.”

They could also use the paid time off as “safe time” if they or a member of their family are a victim of domestic abuse, sexual assault or stalking.

Employers could only demand a doctor’s note after an employee has taken off three days in a row.

Who supports it?

Unions (including the Teamsters, AFL-CIO and SEIU), retirees group AARP, the labor-backed Working Families Party, children’s advocates, domestic violence prevention groups, women’s groups, homeless advocates and pediatricians.

Who opposes it?

The Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, the staffing industry, human resources professionals, the National Federation of Independent Business, grocery store owners, Dunkin’ Donuts franchisees, insurer Amica, lumber dealers and assisted-living centers.

Why would anyone object to paid sick time?

Different groups have different issues, but most of the businesses testifying in opposition at recent committee hearings said it would cost them to offer more generous leave and again to do the bookkeeping required to comply with a new mandate.

“This proposal will drive up the cost of doing business in Rhode Island,” wrote the Dunkin’ Donuts Franchisees of Rhode Island, which represents 180 coffee shops across the state. “It will force our shops to respond. This will likely include: closing low-performing shops, reducing the number of employees we hire or trimming hours of operation.”

The Society for Human Resources Management said rather than a “one-size-fits-all solution,” state paid-leave policies “should accommodate varying work environments, employee representation, industries and organizational size,” according to testimony from Cindy Butler, the director of government affairs for the group’s Rhode Island chapter.

Some are worried it opens the door to employee abuse, especially with limits on employees having to document their illness and the broad definition of who workers could take leave to care for.

“Many employees treat this as a vacation pay and use it to take time off work as soon as they earn a day off, which causes significant disruptions to our clients’ workflow and leaves the employee with no accrued sick time when they actually get sick,” wrote Scott Seaback, president of RI Temps Inc. and representing the Rhode Island Staffing Association.

What do other states do?

Whenever Rhode Island lawmakers consider a major new policy proposal, a comparison to the approaches in Massachusetts and Connecticut is nearly inevitable.

The fact that both of Rhode Island’s neighbors require paid sick days makes it more likely that state leaders will accept such a change and also give some indication of where they might make changes to the current bills.

Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont allow workers to accrue up to 40 hours, or five days, of paid sick leave a year.

Connecticut’s mandatory sick leave exempts businesses with fewer than 50 employees, and Vermont exempts part-timers and seasonal workers.

Five states in the country require paid sick time, and if Rhode Island joins them, it would be the only state other than California to have both mandatory sick leave and Temporary Caregiver Insurance.

The decision makers

Compared with some of the other high-profile policy issues this year, Raimondo, Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio don’t appear to be in direct conflict on paid sick leave.

Raimondo stumped for mandatory sick time in her State of the State address earlier this year, but she has stopped short of endorsing the Regunberg-Goodwin bills.

“I am greatly appreciative of the sponsors’ efforts to bring attention to this important issue,” Raimondo wrote in testimony to the House Labor Committee. “I look forward to working with the Assembly to ensure all working Rhode Islanders have access to paid leave.”

Ruggerio “supports the legislation in concept, and will be working together with Senator Goodwin on the language of the bill,” spokesman Greg Pare wrote in an email.

Asked where Mattiello stands, spokesman Larry Berman offered this statement:

“Speaker Mattiello has met with many advocates, both pro and con, and he sees both sides of this issue,” Berman wrote in an email. “He plans to collaborate with his leadership team and the entire membership of the House, and a policy will be determined through this process in the coming weeks.”

panderson@providence-journal.com

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“I’m feeling momentum. There is a lot of work left to do to continue to make the case and continuing to get input from the business community. But I feel very hopeful that we can get this done.”
State Rep. Aaron Regunberg “I am greatly appreciative of the sponsors’ efforts to bring attention to this important issue. I look forward to working with the Assembly to ensure all working Rhode Islanders have access to paid leave.”
Gov. Gina Raimondo in written testimony for the House Labor Committee Senate President Dominick Ruggerio “supports the legislation in concept, and will be working together with Senator Goodwin on the language of the bill.”
A spokesman for Ruggerio House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello “has met with many advocates, both pro and con, and he sees both sides of this issue.”
Spokesman Larry Berman