As business converges on Capitol, labor resumes push for paid sick days

A renewed effort to make Connecticut the first state to mandate that private employers offer paid sick days is an election-year fault line dividing business and labor, Republicans and Democrats.

The Working Families Party chose “business day” at the Capitol Wednesday to resume lobbying to require businesses with at least 50 employees to offer up to five sick days.

On a day when business allies flooded the Capitol to meet with lawmakers, Republicans seized on the bill as a symbol of legislative Democrats’ antipathy to business.

“It’s not just passing these bills,” said Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield. “But it’s the very fact that they brought up and debated and threatened to pass them that has chased business out of this state.”

Sen. Edith G. Prague, D-Columbia, the co-chairwoman of the Labor Committee, and a coalition assembled by the Working Families Party called the bill a question of economic justice and good public-health policy.

“It is beyond my belief that employers think that this is a terrible thing to do, to give employees a paid sick day,” Prague said.

She was joined by Sen. John A. Kissel, R-Enfield, one of two Republican senators who voted for paid sick days in 2008. No House Republicans voted for a similar bill last year.

Dr. Phillip Brewer, the medical director at Quinnipiac University, said low-wage workers now are forced to work while sick.

“These people serve us in restaurants, take care of our children in day care centers, handle our purchases in retail outlets and come into contact with the public in may other ways,” Brewer said.

Wanda Cobbs, a school bus driver in West Hartford for the town’s bus contractor, First Student, said she reluctantly drove school children while fighting the swine flu.

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West Hartford school bus driver Wanda Cobbs speaks in favor of paid sick days for workers

“The kids I drive are like family. I watch them grow up every year. But when I get sick, I feel like I’m out of options,” she said. “I’m a single mom raising three kids of my own, and money is always tight. I can’t afford to stay home.”

The proposal is the top priority of the Working Families Party, a minor party financed by organized labor. It has passed one chamber in each of the past three years.

It is unclear if the legislature’s Democratic leadership is committed to passage, even though they are record as favoring it.

The Senate passed it twice when the House speaker was James Amann, an opponent who could be relied on to keep the bill from coming to a vote.

Last year, House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, a strong ally of labor, let the bill come to a vote on May 28, a week before the session ended.

It passed, 88 to 58, then died from inaction on the Senate calendar.

The bill this year is being pushed by Prague and has not been identified as a priority of the Senate Democratic leadership.

Republicans challenged Democratic leaders, who say that job creation is their top priority, to declare “that this bill and are other job-killing bills are dead on arrival.”

Senate President Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, declined, saying that Prague’s bill should be considered separately from any job initiative.

“It s a whole separate discussion,” Williams said of paid sick days. “It’s a worthwhile discussion. It’s one we’ve had before in the legislature, but it’s a separate discussion.”

On Wednesday, members of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association said mandatory paid sick days was a distinction Connecticut did not need in a bad economy.

“It’s so counter-intuitive to what the state needs right now,” said David J. Lewis, the president of Operations Inc., a Stamford human-resources consulting company.

“It’s a cookie-cutter approach, a union mentality,” said John Rathgeber, the president of CBIA.

But this year’s version of the bill gives flexibility to employers who offer “other paid leave,” including “flextime, compensatory time, paid vacation, personal days or paid time off.”

Employees could earn one hour of sick leave for every 40 hours worked, up to 40 hours of leave for a year.

“This is a well-thought out measure,” said Kissel, one of the Republican backers.