Workers hail new sick-leave law, but most employers wary

A few weeks ago, Groton school bus driver Desiree Rosado faced a problem: Her 9-year-old son had a viral infection, but she couldn't afford to pass up a paycheck while tending to him at home.

So Rosado, told that her son was not contagious, and shuttled the child around for a week as she made her bus runs for Student Transportation of America.

"He was not feeling good," she said. "But I couldn't miss a whole week of work."

Starting this month, though, Connecticut workers like Rosado will qualify for first-in-the-nation statewide mandatory sick leave, which kicks in for people in service industries once they reach 680 hours worked. The measure is intended to help people like Rosado deal with health issues - without losing a day's pay.

The law, opposed by most business interests, has various industries in a wait-and-see mode as they keep track of the costs associated with implementing the law.

But workers are looking forward to being able to take time off for illness, doctors' appointments and family illnesses without having to forfeit pay.

"I think it's awesome," said Rosado, who testified in favor of the sick-leave law when state legislators were considering the measure last year.

"I think this will have a positive impact on our work force," added Jon Green, executive director of Connecticut Working Families, an advocacy group that supported the mandatory sick-leave law backed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy during his gubernatorial campaign and passed by the General Assembly last year. "You will now be able to go to your doctor when you are sick without worrying about whether you'll still have a job and be able to pay the bills."

Business leaders who fought the bill say they are working hard to help entrepreneurs understand and implement the new law's requirements, which affect organizations with at least 50 employees (though most manufacturers and nonprofits are exempted). Businesses may not like the new law, officials said, but are gearing up for full compliance and likely won't aim at making any changes to the measure until data on the costs and benefits become available in about a year.

Costs deemed low

A memorandum issued last year by the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute said an analysis showed the extra costs for a business that previously did not provide any paid sick days would likely average less than two-tenths of a percent of sales across various industries.

"The empirical evidence shows that the costs of such a policy for Connecticut's employers would be extremely low," the memorandum stated.

But Kia Murrell, associate counsel for the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, said the law will affect tens of thousands of businesses statewide.

The most frequent question from business owners, said Murrell and others, is: Does this law apply to me?

"Every week, I get a call from someone," she said. "It's probably one of the hottest topics we've had."

Murrell worries most about the effect of the new requirement on smaller businesses, which lack the human resources staffs and other expertise to deal with the policy and payroll changes needed to comply with the law.

Many of these companies previously had a "discretionary approval" process that allowed managers to reject requests for time off. But under the new law, it will become impossible for employers to enforce such a policy, though she hopes, out of respect for business owners, workers will be willing to negotiate time off for scheduled doctors' appointments that fit with employers' needs.

Nicole Griffin, executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, said her organization's opposition to the law wasn't related to money, though servers who average $5.69 an hour when they work, not including tips, would be paid the minimum wage of $8.25 an hour during sick leave.

The real problem, she said, is the burden placed on restaurant managers - already dealing with a host of other issues - to find replacement workers for those who call in sick. Previously, the restaurant industry had an informal system in which workers had to switch shifts with someone else if they became ill.

"Certainly, restaurant employers don't want employees to come in sick," she said.

Some restaurants, she said, may be forced to close dining sections if a significant number of employees call in sick. Others have been scrambling to stay under the 50-employee threshold, she added, which could mean fewer employees hired during the summer months.

Staying under the threshold may be difficult, however, because the law includes a look-back requirement that will count any establishment with 50 more employees during any one quarter of 2011 as needing to provide sick-day pay to qualified workers.

"It adds new complexity to the already complex day of running a small business," said Tony Sheridan, president and chief executive officer of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut.

Grocers express concern

Stan Sorkin, president of the Connecticut Food Association, said most supermarkets fall under the provision of the sick-leave law. The food industry employs more than 30,000 people in the state, about 70 percent of whom work part time, he said.

"It's a large incremental expense," he said of the new law. "We estimate that it can be as much as $25,000 per store."

While some stores have tried to get under the 50-employee threshold, it isn't easy to do when grocery stores are trying to fill weekend and evening shifts, Sorkin said. Instead, some businesses have been forced to look at other benefit reductions, such as college tuition aid, to compensate for the extra costs of paid sick leave, he added.

Sorkin said supermarkets, which typically have a profit margin of between 1 percent and 1.5 percent, are at a disadvantage in a competitive industry when compared to drug stores and gas stations that also sell groceries but that usually are under the 50-employee threshold.

"It really hit our industry very hard," he said.

Sorkin is hoping legislators will exempt 16- to 18-year-olds from paid sick-leave provisions when they consider changes to the law in the future. He said he doesn't believe these workers, who make up a significant percentage of supermarkets' labor force, were the ones legislators had in mind when they implemented the new law.

Other business leaders - and representatives of working families - agreed that Connecticut's sick-leave law still may need a few tweaks. But for now both sides appear to be willing to wait until the end of the year to study the effects on businesses before clamoring for change.

"It's like the first state that implemented a 40-hour work week," said Green of Connecticut Working Families. "At first, some people thought it was the end of the world. Now, who in America would think of that as controversial?"

l.howard@theday.com

PAID SICK LEAVE

•¦Can be taken after a service worker accumulates 680 hours for a company that employs 50 or more people.

•¦Is intended for a worker's illness, injury or health condition.

•¦Can be used for medical diagnosis, care or treatment of a worker's mental or physical illness, injury or health condition.

•¦Can be used for preventive medical care for a worker or the worker's child or spouse.

•¦Can be used to deal with a child's or spouse's illness, injury or health condition or the diagnosis, care or treatment of a child or spouse.

•¦Can be used if a worker is a victim of family violence or sexual assault.

•¦For foreseeable absences, such as a doctor's appointment, employees must give advance notice of up to a week.

•¦Is enforced by making a complaint to the state Department of Labor.

Source: Connecticut Department of Labor, Public Act 11-52

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