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Paid Sick Leave Bill Narrowly Passes Appropriations Committee

Business Group Fighting Measure

Christopher Keating

May 10, 2011

A controversial bill that would mandate paid sick leave won the narrow approval of the budget-writing appropriations committee Monday.

Over the course of nearly four hours of debate before the 28-24 vote, lawmakers tangled over the financial impact as well as the larger philosophical issues such a mandate raises.

Supporters say requiring companies to offer paid time off to workers is a matter of fairness, as well as a public health issue. But the bill has been fought aggressively by the 10,000-member Connecticut Business and Industry Association.

Connecticut would be the first state in the nation to mandate paid sick leave. Senate Bill 913 would allow employees to take time off to recuperate from an illness or to care for a sick child. Permanent full- and part-time employees would accrue paid sick leave after three months on the job at the rate of one hour of leave for every 40 hours worked; the policy does not cover seasonal employees. Businesses that do not comply would be fined $600 for each violation. Businesses with fewer than 50 employees are exempt from the requirement.

Looming over Monday's debate is a big question: what will happen to the proposal once it reaches the state Senate, where it is headed next? Some insiders say that the vote count is close to a tie in the 36-member chamber.

Sen. Edith Prague, a liberal Democrat from Columbia, defended the measure in the appropriations committee Monday afternoon.

"It makes for a better employee, a more productive employee, and this is the right thing to do,'' Prague said.

But Sen. Rob Kane, a small business owner and the ranking Senate Republican on the committee, said he meets with fellow small business owners who simply scratch their heads about what is happening in Connecticut's state government.

"The first question out of their mouth is: What the heck are you doing up in Hartford?'' Kane said. "We already know that we have the highest taxes in the country, per capita. Many business magazines and trade publications say this is the worst state to do business. ... No other state has a bill like this.''

Kane noted that more than 250 businesses have opposed paid sick leave, including the Connecticut Restaurant Association.

"All the businesses that I have spoken to have been vehemently opposed,'' said Kane, adding that he offers paid sick leave to his five employees in his own business. "You cannot mandate these types of things.''

During the debate, Prague asked, "Would you, Senator Kane, like to go to a restaurant where someone was sneezing all over you?''

"I don't think that's the issue,'' Kane responded. "Currently, if someone is sick, they take the day off. They have a very good system in the restaurant world to do that. ... Currently, the system works. Under this bill, that will entirely change.''

Kane added, "I think it was Senator Paul Tsongas who said, 'You can't be for employees and against employers.' ''

State Rep. John Rigby of Colebrook, ranking Republican member of the labor committee and a member of the appropriations committee, said, "This is a terrible bill. It's a direct shot at our businesses.''

He cited a machine shop with 110 employees in Winsted that was lured to Connecticut from Michigan decades ago and was told that it could be a supplier to Pratt & Whitney. "This measure might very well be the thing that makes them to decide to leave the state of Connecticut,'' Rigby said. "This is not the time to do this. You can't find a Connecticut firm that supports this measure.''

And state Sen. Joseph Markley, a newly elected Republican from Southington, said it would be the height of arrogance for officials of an economically battered state to tell business owners how to run their companies.

"We're dictating to them how they should run their business,'' Markley said. "Those are decisions which ought to be left to private corporations."

But Sen. Edwin Gomes, a Bridgeport Democrat, said it is difficult to be a waiter or waitress. He told the tale of business workers who rang up a bill of $200 in a restaurant and left a $10 tip.

"You don't make all that much money. You have to hustle,'' Gomes said. "I negotiated sick days for years when I was a union rep. ... The people that get paid the most are the goof-offs. I know because I had to defend them.''

State Rep. Themis Klarides, an attorney, said that it is relatively easy to change shifts with fellow workers at a restaurant when one is sick. She said the average wage for a waitress, with tips, is $25 per hour.

"If I went to a restaurant and I had a waitress slobbering all over my food, I would not be back there soon, trust me,'' said Klarides, a deputy House Republican leader who grew up around a family supermarket business.

The bill has already passed both the labor and judiciary committees. It has the backing of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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