Dozens turn out to support lawmakers as they file bill to bring paid sick days to Maryland workers

by Sarah Breitenbach

Legislation filed this week would create a standard to assure that workers in our state could earn up to seven days of paid sick time each year.

The Earned Sick and Safe Time Act, cross-filed by Sen. Robert J. Garagiola (D-Montgomery) and Delegate John A. Olszewski, Jr. (D-Baltimore County), would enable workers to earn one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours they work.

More than 700,000 people in Maryland cannot earn paid sick days from their employers. Many of these employees are low-wage workers who already face significant financial hurdles and worry that taking a day off work could mean they are unable to feed their children or pay their rent.

“They’re working, they’re paying the bills, but when a situation arises where either they themselves become ill or a family member (is sick) … they have to make a very difficult choice,” Garagiola said. “To me this is very common sense legislation.”

Garagiola and Olszewski announced the proposed standard at a press conference Thursday where they were flanked by dozens of supporters from the Working Matters coalition, a group committed to passing the paid sick days law. More than 65 organizations are actively supporting the proposed law and thousands of Marylanders have signed a petition to show their enthusiasm for the opportunity to earn paid sick days.

For people like Matt Burchell, a restaurant worker who lives in Baltimore, missing a Friday or Saturday shift because of illness could mean he is unable to cover his basic expenses. Burchell recently missed a day of work because an ear infection worsened and he needed immediate medical attention.

“I was really lucky that day. First that there was no major problems with my ear, but also being a Tuesday, it was not exactly a busy day for servers,” Burchell said. “But if that had been a weekend … If I had missed a Friday of work, that’s my car payment. If I had missed a Saturday, that’s my utility bill. If I had to miss an entire week, that’s my mortgage that I’m going to have make up somewhere else.”

Living without access to paid sick days not only hurts working adults, but dramatically impacts children who are often sent to school ill when their parents cannot afford to take a day off to care for them. Mary Stein, a nurse who works at elementary and middle schools in Howard County, told the crowd that sick students often wait long hours to be picked up from school because their parents are unable to leave work.

“So I’m urging you all to support this,” she said. “Kids need it. Their parents need it. We have enormous problems when kids come to school ill because then you have a whole classroom out. Now you’re affecting learning, you’re affecting education, you’re affecting their ability to become better citizens, better people because they’re losing time.”

In light of our fragile economy, the bill is also designed with businesses in mind. Companies would not have to alter existing leave policies if they already meet the time off accrual standard and allow workers to use that paid time off in event of a personal or family illness.

Andy Shallal, owner of the Busboys and Poets restaurant in Hyattsville, has offered paid sick leave to all of his employees for three years. He reports that providing the benefit makes up for less than 1 percent of his payroll costs.

“We’re living proof that the sky is not going to fall,” Shallal said.

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