Advocates seek sick leave bill

Hartford — State lawmakers seeking to require most state businesses to provide a minimum amount of paid sick leave for their workers have a new ally this year: swine flu.

Organizers of a new drive to pass the sick-leave bill, which draws strong support from labor unions and vehement opposition from the state’s business lobby, say last year’s H1N1 epidemic was likely worsened by the inability of some private sector workers to stay home when they began feeling signs of illness.

“These are people who serve us in restaurants, who take care of our children in day care centers, who care for people in nursing homes,” said Phillip Brewer, an emergency room physician and student health director at Quinnipiac University. “They are putting their customers, their coworkers and the general public at risk of spreading the disease.”

“Their germs are our germs,” said Lindsay Farrell, the legislative director of the Connecticut Working Families Party, which organized a press conference featuring Democrats — and one lone Republican — who support the sick leave mandate, as well as a West Hartford school bus driver who said she continued to work last year while infected with H1N1. The flu did not spread to any of the students on the bus, organizers said.

But the press conference brought howls from opponents of the proposal, especially because the Working Families Event occurred on the same day as a forum staged by the Connecticut Business & Industry Association to highlight the priorities of business owners, and one day after the latest declaration by Democratic leaders that they are intent on stimulating job growth this session.

“Sadly today we are back to business as usual at the Capitol,” said Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, who called the sick leave proposal a “job-killing” measure that would add overhead costs and discourage businesses below the 50-worker threshold at which it takes effect.

“If we continue to pass unfriendly business mandates, they will close their doors, and hundreds of people will lose their jobs,” McKinney said.

McKinney and House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, didn’t just call on the Democratic leadership to oppose the bill, which is backed by Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville, and Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia. The leaders, McKinney and Cafero said, should block the issue from coming up for a vote at all.

“Do a moratorium,” Cafero said. “Not this year. Let’s wait a year or two before we bring this up.”

Backers of the measure, which failed last year, said they believe the measure would actually help the affected businesses by increasing loyalty among workers and improving productivity, since unhealthy workers would not have to come to work to keep their jobs or cover their living expenses.

But business owners who joined the Republican opposition to the measure said a new mandate would continue to sour employers on Connecticut’s overall business climate, and would even force some who are already providing some paid sick leave to workers to make those terms more generous. The result, they said, would be continued reluctance to do new hiring, and layoffs.

“It is not a mandate against employers,” said Rep. Selim Noujaim, R-Waterbury, a small business owner, “as much as it is a mandate against employees.”

The sick leave bill awaits action by the Labor Committee, of which Prague and Ryan are the co-chairs.


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