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Sick Leave Clears Senate

House Expected To Approve Bill; First Among States

Daniela Altimari and Christopher Keating

May 26, 2011

By the slimmest of margins, the state Senate on Wednesday approved the first-in-the-nation statewide mandate that would require Connecticut service companies with 50 or more workers to provide paid sick days.

Following more than six hours of debate, the measure passed 18-17 as five fiscally conservative Democrats broke with their party and joined with Republicans against the bill.

The controversial proposal had been significantly diluted from earlier versions, but opponents raised the same objections and denounced the measure as a job-killer.

Manufacturing firms and nationally chartered nonprofit organizations would be exempt, and the bill would not cover day laborers and temporary workers. Unlike in its earlier incarnations, the measure now applies only to service workers, a broad category that includes waiters, cashiers, crossing guards and hairstylists.

The bill now heads to the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, where approval is expected. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who lobbied wavering senators in favor of the bill, has pledged to sign it if it reaches his desk. Malloy had made the issue an important part of his platform during the gubernatorial primary battle last year against Ned Lamont, a Greenwich cable television entrepreneur who ran on a pro-business platform.

As one of the most heavily lobbied bills at the Capitol this year, paid sick leave generated passions on both sides. Supporters said it was a great day for Connecticut, while opponents said it sends the wrong message to businesses that have laid off employees and are struggling to make a profit.

"It's a proud day for the state," said Jon Green, executive director of the labor-backed Working Families Party. "At the end of the day, this is a small step forward for the people who have been hit by this recession. It's a real win-win."

Supporters broke into applause in the gallery of the staid and ornate Senate, prompting a rebuke from Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman regarding decorum in the historic chamber. The same group of about 40 people cheered loudly a few minutes later after Sen. Edith Prague, the bill's chief champion, came outside the Senate chamber to greet them.

The final vote came largely along party lines: one Republican, Sen. John Kissel of Enfield, joined with the Democratic majority to support the proposal, while five Democrats - Sens. Gayle Slossberg of Milford, Paul Doyle of Wethersfield, Bob Duff of Norwalk, Joan Hartley of Waterbury and Andrew Maynard of Stonington - voted "no."

Joseph Brennan, the senior vice president and chief lobbyist for the 10,000-member Connecticut Business and Industry Association, blasted the bill as ill-timed when many businesses are hurting in a sluggish economy.

"This is just a terrible piece of legislation," Brennan said after the vote. "This is an anti-jobs, anti-business bill, despite what was said on the floor. We've done nothing - again, nothing - to encourage businesses to grow in Connecticut. ... It's bad precedent. We don't want to be the first state to adopt this."

With an unemployment rate of 9.1 percent, Brennan said, "It boggles the mind" that the legislature could approve the bill.

Prague, the chief proponent in the Senate, brought the bill to the floor just before 12:30 p.m. Wednesday. She noted that no other state had passed such a law, although several cities, including San Francisco and Washington, D.C., mandate paid sick time.

"I am very proud that Connecticut is in the lead on this issue," Prague said.

Under the proposal, each employee would earn one hour of paid sick time for every 40 hours worked, with the number of days capped at five a year. An amendment proposed by Prague, and later passed, would exempt all manufacturing firms and certain nonprofit groups such as the YMCA.

Some business leaders tried to crush the bill, calling it an expensive mandate that would kill jobs. But proponents framed the debate as a public health issue as well as a matter of fairness.

Sen. Gary LeBeau said the bill was limited in scope yet would go far in protecting workers who fear losing their jobs should they fall ill.

"Unemployment compensation was not a popular idea," said LeBeau, a Democrat from East Hartford. "Workers' compensation was not a popular idea. ... Businesses said, 'Oh, this will be harmful, this will kill us.' Well, it's our duty, I believe, to balance off the good of society versus the good of any particular segment of society. I think this is quite doable."

Senate Republican Leader John McKinney, a critic of the measure, predicted that the bill would hurt businesses. It is, he added, another example of meddling by arrogant lawmakers who think they know better than business people how to run a business.

And he noted the inconsistencies inherent in carving out the exemptions for businesses with fewer than 50 workers, manufacturing firms and certain nonprofit groups. Such exclusions undercut the public health argument put forth by proponents, he said.

"If you go to a restaurant with less than 50 employees, your health is not protected," McKinney said.

McKinney said it was telling that officials in New York City considered such a proposal several times in recent years but rejected it because it was too great a burden for business.

Republicans cast the debate in philosophical terms, saying they were deeply opposed to the idea of government meddling in the affairs of business. Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington, said the bill was one more example of "the march of regulation in this state, of rules, of laws, of entitlements, of things which tell us how to live our lives."

Markley said the business community vigorously opposed the measure.

"Not just the big business lobby groups, not just the CBIA; I could ignore it if it was just the CBIA," he said. "The businessmen themselves are against it ... these people are the people that are struggling with the problems of keeping a business alive. Why are we telling them what to do?"

But not all Republicans rejected the idea. Kissel, a supporter since the measure first arrived at the Capitol in 2007, views paid sick leave as a public health imperative. He invoked his grandfather's memories of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and said making sure that sick people stay home is a key part of disease prevention.

"It is an imperfect bill," Kissel acknowledged. "What we're about here is trying to pass legislation that has broad enough support to bring people together."

Sens. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, and Ed Meyer, D-Guilford, both said they struggled with the measure.

"My voting record on this bill is very mixed ... and that reflects how torn ... I have been about it," Bye said. "I'm not torn because I don't care about sick people. ... I'm torn because both sides of this argument have valid points."

But both Bye and Meyer ultimately signed on after the exemptions were added. Bye said she was concerned about the effect on small manufacturing firms; once they were removed, she became a supporter. Meyer came around after the exclusion for certain nonprofits was added.

The nearly daylong debate stretched into the early evening before the vote about 6:30 p.m. Republicans had filed 119 amendments to the measure, although fewer than a dozen were called.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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