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Foes Still Throwing Darts After Paid Sick Leave Passage

Christopher Keating

June 05, 2011

Connecticut will make history as the first state in the nation to mandate paid sick leave for service workers, but many Republicans and Democrats remain bitterly divided over its eventual impact on companies and the economy.

After one of the longest legislative debates of the year - stretching to 11 hours - the House of Representatives voted 76-65 at 3 a.m. Saturday in favor of the controversial measure, which requires a maximum of five paid sick days for hourly workers in companies with 50 or more workers.

About a dozen fiscally conservative Democrats, including Linda Schofield of Simsbury, Richard Roy of Milford and Frank Nicastro of Bristol, broke with their party and voted with the Republicans against the measure.

Lawmakers, some operating on three hours' sleep, returned to the historic Hall of the House shortly after noon Saturday and passed multiple other bills before adjourning at about 6 p.m. as they rushed to complete their work before the end of the legislative session at midnight Wednesday.

The paid sick leave bill has been controversial for years, but it never had enough support for passage until Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy pushed hard for it. Business lobbyists had said they had enough votes to defeat the bill in the Senate, but Malloy turned the tide by lobbying wavering Democrats in favor of the measure. The Senate had previously approved the bill 18-17.

Lobbyists and legislators said that many Democrats were simply unable to look a new governor in the eye and vote against his wishes. Other veteran Democrats were able to buck the trend in their party.

Malloy had made the issue an important part of his campaign platform during the gubernatorial primary battle last year against Democrat Ned Lamont, a Greenwich cable television entrepreneur who ran on a pro-business platform.

The governor lauded the bill's passage Saturday.

"Throughout my campaign and now during my time as governor, I've been clear about my commitment to the concept of paid sick leave, and I'm pleased that a reasonable compromise has passed both the Senate and the House," Malloy said in a statement. "As I've said before, this is good public policy and specifically, good public health.

"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? The simple answer is - you wouldn't. And now, you won't have to. Without paid sick leave, frontline service workers - people who serve us food, who care for our children, and who work in hospitals, for example - are forced to go to work sick to keep their jobs. That's not a choice I'm comfortable having people make under my tenure, and I'm proud to sign this bill when it comes to my desk."

Manufacturing firms and nationally chartered nonprofit organizations like the YMCA would be exempt, and the bill also would not cover day laborers, independent contractors, salaried workers and temporary workers.

Unlike in its previous incarnations, the bill now applies only to service workers who receive an hourly wage - a broad category that would cover an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 waiters, waitresses, cashiers, crossing guards, fast-food cooks, hairstylists, security guards, nursing home aides, car mechanics and others. Republicans complained that the list of jobs covered is vague, but Democrats said any disputes over which workers might be covered would be settled by the state labor department.

Democrats hailed the bill as a major breakthrough for workers, similar to the 40-hour workweek and child labor laws.

"It's a historic moment," said House Speaker Christopher Donovan, a Meriden Democrat. "A lot of businesses already know it's the right thing to do. It's not a big cost for business. ... I think a lot of people in America are actually shocked to hear that there are people that don't have sick leave, and I also mean no vacation time, no personal days, no leave at all, no option when someone gets sick in their house."

In his wrap-up speech that started at 2:45 a.m. Saturday, House Republican leader Larry Cafero of Norwalk said that the paid sick leave bill is "the absolutely worst thing we could do, the worst signal we could send" to the business community. He rejected Malloy's often-repeated line that Connecticut is open for business.

"What we need in the state of Connecticut is jobs, jobs, jobs," Cafero told his colleagues on the House floor. "The state of Connecticut is, in fact, not open for business."

The legislature's recent actions will hurt job growth, he said.

In the summary remarks for the Democrats, House Majority Leader J. Brendan Sharkey said Connecticut was the first state to pass the Family and Medical Leave Act - even before the federal government. The predictions of gloom and doom did not come true with medical leave and will not happen with sick leave, he said. The medical legislation, he said, proved to be ahead of its time in the same way that sick leave will be ahead of its time.

"That's what we do. In Connecticut, we do these things," said Sharkey, a small business owner who said he understands the difficulties in the economy because he has had to lay off employees. "We led the way in Connecticut."

Sharkey noted that the issue had polarized those under the Gold Dome.

"Let's stop the hyperbole. Let's stop the exaggeration," Sharkey said. "Let's think. Let's develop legislation that makes sense."

One of the chief lobbyists against the bill, Joseph Brennan of the 10,000-member Connecticut Business and Industry Association, came to the Capitol press room at 3:20 a.m. Saturday to say that the retail merchants, restaurant owners, and other businesses have not been engaged in hyperbole.

"We are just responding to what we're hearing from our members," said Brennan, a senior vice president at CBIA. "We're hearing very loud and clear from our members that they are frustrated that the message is not getting through. ... We have to get the message out. We've got to get a different direction in public policy."

Earlier, Timothy Phelan of the Connecticut Retail Merchants Association said the heavy lobbying by both Malloy and Donovan proved to be insurmountable.

"The governor and the speaker. Those two factors are pretty big ones," Phelan said.

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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