Maryland Has Paid Sick Leave. But Is it Enough for Workers Impacted by Coronavirus?

(Left to right) Del. Ariana B. Kelly (D-Montgomery), Del. Kris Valderrama (D-Prince George's), Sen. Antonio Hayes (D-Baltimore City) and Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel) are the chief sponsors of paid family leave legislation. Photo by Hannah Gaskill

As debates rage on Capitol Hill and in statehouses and local governments on how best to protect workers whose livelihoods could be imperiled by the coronavirus, it’s important to remember that Maryland has one thing that most states don’t: Paid sick leave.

Maryland is one of just a dozen states with an earned sick leave policy. Enacted two years ago after the General Assembly overrode a 2017 veto from Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), the state law requires businesses with at least 15 employees to provide up to five days off each year for workers to deal with illnesses.

While a spokeswoman with the Maryland Department of Labor said the agency does not keep statistics on people who have taken advantage of paid sick leave in the state, it’s likely that the number will increase considerably as the virus spreads.

One of the chief architects of the legislation, which passed after a multi-year fight, said he’s glad the law is there to protect workers.

“Not only did the economy not come to a screeching halt, as some people had been warning, the law is an essential part of how low- and moderate-income Marylanders are going to get by if they’re quarantined or if they themselves become ill,” said Del. Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City), the lead House sponsor of the sick leave law.

But if the coronavirus starts hitting major segments of the workforce in the weeks ahead, the five days of guaranteed pay may prove to be woefully inadequate, advocates who fought for the legislation warned this week.

“I’m dealing with two things,” said Caryn York, executive director of the Baltimore-based Job Opportunities Task Force. “I’m totally proud that we fought for six years and we won. But it’s also a reminder that what we won is not enough to hold workers through something like this pandemic.”

York said she worries that a prolonged quarantine of workers in a variety of industries could “leave hordes of individuals with issues of economic instability.”

Emergency legislation introduced Monday night by the General Assembly’s presiding officers and Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard), the legislature’s lone public health doctor, to address the coronavirus calls for several measures to safeguard Marylanders’ health and to prevent price gouging by retailers.

One provision in the bill would ensure that people under quarantine or isolation don’t lose their jobs. But it doesn’t guarantee pay for the period when they are missing work.

In fact, a proposal that would have extended sick leave for workers during public health emergencies was left out of the legislation that wound up becoming law, according to Sally Dworak-Fisher, an attorney with the Public Justice Center in Baltimore.

“We would love to put that back in the law,” she said.

Cailey Locklair, president of the Maryland Retailers Association, said members of her organization, which includes supermarkets and pharmacies, are among the businesses that could be hit most seriously by a widespread outbreak of the coronavirus — even as they’re asked to continue to provide essential services.

Rather than advocating for or against legislation in the final month of session, Locklair said her association is seeking more information and guidance from state government.

“There are so many questions and so many different directions for where the conversation is going,” she said. “Obviously, our employers don’t want sick people at work.”

When the sick leave bill became law in 2018, it exempted employees who worked less than 12 hours a week, and workers under the age of 18.

This year, before the outbreak of the coronavirus, lawmakers introduced a bill to exempt substitute teachers from the provisions of the sick leave law, and another to extend the amount of time seasonal temporary employees must work before they qualify for the sick leave benefits.

The legislation covering substitute teachers, sponsored by Sens. Jack Bailey (R-St. Mary’s) and Pamela G. Beidle (D-Anne Arundel), had a hearing in the Finance Committee a month ago but has not moved. The temporary worker bill, sponsored by Sens. Mary Beth Carozza (R-Lower Shore) and Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R-Upper Shore) is scheduled for a hearing Thursday in the Finance Committee. But the cross-filed House bill, sponsored by Del. Wayne A. Hartman (R-Lower Shore), has already been killed by the Economic Matters Committee.

Meanwhile, some of the same activists who pushed for paid sick leave in past sessions are now pushing legislation to establish a Family and Medical Leave Insurance Program, which would provide up to 12 weeks of benefits to a covered individual taking leave from employment due to personal and family circumstances. Under the legislation, employers and workers would contribute to a fund that would make the family leave possible.

Sen. Antonio L. Hayes (D-Baltimore City), the chief sponsor of the family leave legislation, called his bill “even more important” with a coronavirus outbreak looming.

“This provides an opportunity where not only the employee but [also] the employer are partners in making sure that people have the job protections where — when they have emergencies — that they can take off work [and] that they’ll be compensated for that,” Hayes said.
“They don’t have to make the tough choices of not showing up to work and not getting paid for your work.”
Del. Ariana B. Kelly (D-Montgomery), a co-sponsor of the measure, said she wasn’t sure if the coronavirus would improve the bill’s chances of passing this year, but she  argued that the health risks to extended families help to crystalize the deficiencies in state law that the bill seeks to address.
“People are really aware now that the fact that we don’t have a paid disability policy really matters,” Kelly said.
But even if the bill passes this year — no sure thing — it will take a few years before there’s enough funding in the program for the full family leave program to kick in.
York, of the Job Opportunities Task Force, agreed that the coronavirus crisis spotlights the peril many workers may face, and provides the opportunity for activists “to get the message out [to lawmakers] to do the right thing.” But she expressed disappointment that such a message was even necessary.
“You’d think there’d be more impetus to say, ‘Holy crap, we need to do more on this,'” she said.
The coronavirus outbreak, Dworak-Fisher predicted, is going to expose the deficiencies in the state policy.
“Our sick leave law,” she said, “is no match for this public health emergency.”

Bruce DePuyt contributed to this report. 

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