Lawmakers Debate Legislation That Would Protect Essential Workers

Sen. Malcolm Augustine (D-Prince George's). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Maryland labor unions are seeking hazard pay and mandatory health and safety standards for essential workers during emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic. But business owners say they cannot afford to bear the brunt of such costs.

The proposed Maryland Essential Workers’ Protection Act, sponsored by Sen. Malcom L. Augustine (D-Prince George’s) and 20 other senators, is an emergency bill that would require employers to pay essential workers who earn less than $100,000 with hazard pay of an extra $3 per hour, provide personal protective equipment at no cost and offer three days of bereavement leave (death of family member as a result from emergency) and 14 days of paid health leave.

The House version of the bill, sponsored by Economic Matters Committee Chairman Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), had a hearing last week.

“I support relief for all Marylanders, our residents and our businesses to make it through, but some are sacrificing more than others for us in this process, and they deserve special consideration for protections,” Augustine told the Senate Finance Committee Thursday.

“These essential workers, public and private workers, don’t have a choice, but in many instances have willingly put their lives on the line for us generating angst and anxiety within their families because they are in constant fear of getting sick and dying.”

Under Augustine’s measure, employers must prepare comprehensive action plans that address workplace safety during states of emergencies. Essential workers would have the right to refuse work in unsafe environments, which the bill defines as failure to provide PPE or enforce federal and state health standards.

Employers must also pay for employees’ testing if their health insurance does not cover it and other unreimbursed health care costs. In addition, the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange must open a special enrollment period for essential workers who are not a under the insurance plan sponsored by their employer, which has an one-time upfront cost of $40,000 to set up, according to an analysis by the Department of Legislative Services.

If these requirements are not met, the Maryland Department of Labor can penalize employers for up to $1,000 and grant relief to essential workers. Anne Arundel County is already providing hazard pay of $2.50 per hour.

But these additional responsibilities and costs can harm already beleaguered small business owners, who are doing their best to protect workers, opponents argued.

“We’re talking about a world that is financially impossible for Maryland small businesses,” said Mike O’Halloran, the Maryland State Director for the National Federation of Independent Business. Scores of businesses have indicated that they will have to close permanently if economic conditions don’t improve in the next year, he said.

The small business impact of Augustine’s measure is “meaningful,” according to legislative analysts. Furthermore, it would cost the Maryland Department of Labor $244,100 this year and over $600,000 in the following two years to implement the bill.

In response to the question of who will bear the burden of the costs, Augustine said he has looked at other states that have implemented similar legislation and used federal CARES Act money. “There’s a shared sacrifice that has to go into this,” he said.

Sen. Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R-Upper Shore) asked if there could be a mechanism that would allow employers to be fully reimbursed by the state for all costs associated with the legislation.

“My interest is in supporting all Marylanders and I am open, I have been doing research and I have been asking to try to find ways to make this work for all,” Augustine said.

But the cost of doing nothing is the life of essential workers and their families, Ricarra Jones, the political director of Service Employees International Union 1199, told Maryland Matters. Small businesses have received grants from the federal and state government, but nothing specifically allocated for essential workers.

Although the hazard pay is not retroactive to the beginning of the pandemic, Hershey pointed out that this emergency bill could be enacted as early as the spring and it’s unlikely that the pandemic will be over by then. In other words, the current virus would be considered as something that would induce this measure to take effect immediately.

Hershey also highlighted that this week, the Long Beach City Council in California mandated a 120-day increase of $4 hour per hour for grocery store employees, leading Kroger Company to close two of its supermarkets. Supermarkets that cater to low income communities might shut down if they cannot weather these extra costs, he continued.

“Why would you think that something like that wouldn’t occur here in Maryland if we were to pass the same type of legislation?” Hershey said.

Mike Wilson, vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, countered that Kroger’s decision was an attempt to intimidate workers and legislators from passing similar bills.

Finance Chairwoman Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County) said the term “essential employee” was too broad, as the bill includes 76 different sub industries such as automotive, laundromats and food and agriculture that are themselves hanging on by a thread and in need of public assistance.

“A lot of people who work as an essential employee are also themselves small business owners in some fashion,” Sen. Justin Ready (R-Carroll) echoed. “We do need to remember that anything we do goes kind of both ways.”

Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) contended that businesses that employ frontline workers have to make sacrifices.

“You have to make difficult choices; it’s the nature of the job and this is a very tough one,” Frosh said. “You have to decide who you think does not deserve to be protected from COVID-19 at work,” he said.

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