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Labor committee reviewing bill mandating paid sick days

Zack Huffman

Having healthcare coverage is one thing, but according to the Massachusetts Paid Leave Coalition (MPLC), healthcare is of no use if people are not able to take the time away from work to receive that coverage.

This is why representatives from the MPLC a group of 69 labor unions, community groups and legal action organizations appeared in front of the Grand Staircase in the Massachusetts State House to make the case for paid sick days. They estimate that 1.4 million workers in the state do not receive sick days.

If passed, the bill would require all employers in the state to allow employees the opportunity to earn at least seven days  of paid sick leave in a year, at the rate of one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours of work.

The bill was filed in January by Sen. Patricia Jehlen (D-Somerville) and Rep. Kay Khan (D-Newton) and has attracted the sponsorship of 19 senators and 76 representatives. Ten of those sponsors are members of the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, which is currently reviewing the bill.

With the threat of the possible spread of H1N1 looming in the background, MPLC officials said they expect the need for paid sick leave to be of particular importance to communities of color.

According to a recent Health Impact Assessment from the Human Impact Partners (HIP), Blacks and Latinos are already disproportionately affected by the spread of the disease.

The local study looked at H1N1 cases between April and June 2009. Though African-Americans comprise 25 percent of Boston’s population, they account for 37 percent of H1N1 cases, the study reported. Latinos make up 14 percent of the city’s population while making up 33 percent of H1N1 cases.

Racial demographics aside, HIP found that over 40 percent of the private sector workforce in the state do not get paid sick days. Without paid sick days, individuals with a tight budget may not be able to afford to take a day off without pay.

“Telling people to stay home is only reasonable when people can afford to stay home,” said Dr. Anita Barry, director of Infectious Disease Bureau at the Boston Public Health Commission.

Robert Haynes, President of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, argued in favor of the legislation, explaining that enabling workers to take paid sick time off would prove to be beneficial to both employees and businesses.

“I really don’t see any costs,” Haynes said. “I think it’s a balancing act. If you’re sick and you go to work, you’re going to cost the employer money. If you get to take one or two days off, to take care of yourself or an ailing parent you’re going to be more productive when you get back.”

Following the press conference, participants left the Grand Staircase for a legislative hearing in front of the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development.

Erin Trabucco, General Counsel for the Retailers Association of Massachussets (RAM), was among those who gave testimony in front of the committee in opposition to the bill.

“RAM believes it is not in the best interest of the Commonwealth to enact a mandate that will prove to be too costly for employers, particularly during questionable economic times,” she said.

According to Trabucco, the bill would not necessarily be beneficial for those who work part-time and may have to choose between particular benefits or higher wages.

“Our members have experimented with different benefits packages and have found that given the choice, part-time employees would prefer a higher wage package as opposed to a lower wage with mandated benefits,” she said. “These mandated benefits would increase the cost for employers and eventually lead to lower wages and or higher consumer prices.”

“I would say that it’s a competitive issue,” countered Haynes. “Some people are already able to provide paid sick leave. We ought to have a level playing field. Everybody ought to provide these benefits.”