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Working & the Economy

House Lawmakers Advance Narrower Essential Worker Protection Legislation

Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles) defended the Maryland Essential Workers’ Protection Act, sponsored by Economic Matters Committee Chairman Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s, on the House floor. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

An emergency bill to protect essential workers during public health emergencies is moving through the Maryland General Assembly. However, with less than a week remaining in the legislative session, it faces a tough timeline for final passage. The amended measure curtails who counts as an essential worker, does not guarantee paid sick leave and no longer includes hazard pay.

The House Economic Matters committee — chaired by the bill sponsor, Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s) — removed the initial $3 an hour in hazard pay from the Maryland Essential Workers’ Protection Act and made paid sick leave contingent upon funding from the state or federal government.

Although funding for paid sick leave could possibly come from President Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package, known as the American Rescue Plan, it would not be guaranteed, Tyra Robinson, attorney for Public Justice Center said in an interview. 

The committee also narrowed the definition of essential worker to industries that the governor or a federal or state agency deems essential. Additionally, the employer has to determine an employee as critical to their business for them to count as an essential worker.

“With that kind of double layering, we’re concerned that it’s going to apply to fewer and fewer workers and make this bill somewhat ineffective,” Robinson said.

A new provision also allows an employer to require an essential worker to provide documentation if they need to use “public health emergency leave:” paid time off to isolate if exposed to a virus, to care for a family member, or to take other health precautions.

But not all workers have access to a doctor and “we don’t want to have to make employees take that extra step when there’s already, possibly, a worldwide health crisis going on,” Robinson continued.

After several committee work group meetings, the House of Delegates took up the Maryland Essential Workers’ Protection Act on Friday, which sparked an hour long partisan back-and-forth over who should shoulder the responsibility of ensuring a safe working environment during public health emergencies.

Small businesses are still struggling financially from the COVID-19 pandemic, Del. Brian A. Chisholm (R-Anne Arundel) argued, so if anyone, the state should fund testing for essential workers, not employers.

But state funds might not be readily available in the next emergency, and ultimately someone has to pay for the immediate costs, Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles) said. It is not possible to mandate the state to pay an unknown amount for the next emergency, and, at the end of the day, employers have the moral obligation to protect essential workers, Wilson said.

Del. April R. Rose (R-Carroll) asked if this measure suggested that businesses should shut down if they cannot afford to extra protection costs.

“If you cannot afford to keep your employees safe; if you cannot afford to keep your customers safe; if the line is so thin, then I don’t know how you can continue to operate,” Wilson said.

When asked about his own business, Wilson said he paid $125 plus the drive to get COVID-19 tests for his employees three separate times. “That’s the cost of me doing business — there are certain costs to do business,” Wilson said. “We have to realize that everyone’s going to suffer.”

Chisholm’s amendment requiring the state, instead of the employer, to bear health costs failed.

Essential employers would be required to report test results to the Maryland Department of Health under the legislation, but Del. Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel) proposed an amendment to shift the onus onto test facilities to report directly to the Maryland Department of Health. This would preclude duplicative data concerns, Kipke said. His amendment failed.

An effort to stall debate on the bill by Del. Neil C. Parrott (R-Washington) failed Friday. The Maryland Essential Workers’ Protection Act eventually passed the House in a 93-39 vote.

“I think we’ve learned a lot of lessons from this current pandemic and realized that we were all unprepared,” Ricarra Jones, political director of 1199 Service Employees International Union, said in an interview. “This is an opportunity for Maryland to really take the lead to protect our workers.”

The House bill was introduced to the Senate on Monday evening, and, because it crossed over from the House so late in the legislative session, must go through the Rules Committee before it can be scheduled for a hearing by a standing committee. The Senate cross file, sponsored by Sen. Malcom L. Augustine (D-Prince George’s) and 20 other senators, has not advanced out of the Senate Finance Committee.

“We don’t know when the next catastrophic public health emergency is going to be, but if this bill isn’t passed in its strongest form, that puts us in a weaker position when [another public health emergency] comes up again,” Robinson said.

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House Lawmakers Advance Narrower Essential Worker Protection Legislation