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House Votes 76-65 in Favor of Sick Leave Bill

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(credit: www.cga.ct.gov/capitoltours)

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By SUSAN HAIGH Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) – Connecticut moved closer Saturday to becoming the first state in the nation to require certain employers to provide their workers with paid sick time.

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives early Saturday morning approved legislation that requires businesses in the service industry with 50 or more employees to allow their workers to accrue one hour of sick time for every 40 hours worked. The bill passed on a 76-65 vote following more than 11 hours of debate, beginning Friday afternoon.

The bill, which had already cleared the Senate, moves to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s desk. The new Democratic governor, who campaigned on the issue during last year’s election, said he’ll sign it into law.

“As I’ve said before, this is good public policy and, specifically, good public health,” Malloy said in a statement issued shortly after the vote was taken. “Why would you want to eat food from a sick restaurant cook? Or have your children taken care of by a sick day care worker?”

But Republican lawmakers, the minority in the General Assembly, and some Democrats said they fear the new mandate will become a job-killer in a state where the unemployment rate was 9.1 percent as of April, around the national average. House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, said business owners are looking to state lawmakers for relief from the burdens of the slow economy. They don’t want new burdens, he said.

“I guess we can be the first in the nation to pass this legislation, or we can look inward and say, “We’ve got to take care of our own. We’ve got to get back on our feet,”’ Cafero said.

House Majority Leader Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said proponents of paid sick leave took pains to address the concerns of business and scaled back the bill. For example, the bill exempts manufacturers and tax-exempt organizations. Sharkey said the issue has become too polarizing in Connecticut and urged both sides to “stop the hyperbole” and the exaggeration.

“The bottom line is, it’s not either or,” he said about the new mandate. “Let’s watch this legislation. Let’s see what works. Let’s stop what doesn’t work. Let’s see what effect it has on business.”

Joseph Brennan, senior vice president for public policy at the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, said organizations ranging from the state restaurant association to various business groups weren’t engaging in hyperbole while fighting bill, which has been proposed each legislative session for the past four years. He said they were just responding to the concerns they heard from members.

“We get criticized for being negative. We get criticized for opposing things. We are very, very concerned about the stability of the Connecticut economy, and we don’t want to do anything that will make us more unstable,” Brennan said. “We want to do things that make us more stable. This bill is not going to improve the stability of our economy. It’s not going to improve our attractiveness for investment.”

National advocates for paid sick days were closely watching the debate in Connecticut.

“This is a symbol of progress for the movement, and the fact that Connecticut is taking the lead really does provide a model and hope for the country,” said Vicky Shabo, director of work and family programs at the Washington, D.C.-based National Partnership for Women and Families.

Currently, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., have mandatory paid sick time. There’s a similar requirement in Milwaukee, but it was recently pre-empted by state legislation. That move is being challenged.

Lawmakers in Massachusetts and California, as well as municipal officials in Philadelphia, Seattle and Denver, are considering paid sick days legislation, according to Shabo’s organization.

Connecticut’s legislation affects businesses with 50 or more workers and targets the service industry, where many employees handle food and work with the public. Jon Green, executive director of the Working Families Party, a political group that has advocated for the bill, estimates that 200,000 to 250,000 workers would receive the paid sick days.

Cheryl Folston, a livery service driver from Newington, stayed at the Capitol to watch the 3 a.m. vote. She said she nearly died from a heart tumor that went undiagnosed because she didn’t have paid sick leave at her job and couldn’t take time off to see a doctor about her chest pains.

“I am overwhelmed with gratitude today that Connecticut recognizes that even low-wage workers like me deserve the dignity and the safety of being able to see the doctor or take a day off to recover from illness,” she said. “No one should have to go through what I did.”

Service workers in 68 occupations would be affected by the legislation. The list includes varied occupations including food service managers, home health aides, janitors, cashiers, cooks, bartenders, crossing guards, dental hygienists, bellhops, bakers, computer operators, bus drivers and waitresses.

Day and temporary workers, as well as salaried employees, would be exempt from the bill.

Employees would be able to use the leave to take care of their own illness or injury, related treatment and preventive medical care, or take care of a child or spouse. A worker could use the time for reasons related to family violence or sexual assault.

The bill also would allow workers to file complaints with the state Department of Labor if they believe they’ve been aggrieved. The commissioner could impose civil penalties up to $100. Additionally, the bill would ban employers from retaliating or discriminating against employees who request or use the paid sick leave.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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