Malloy backs paid sick days, but Senate support has eroded

With an ally in the governor’s office and a too-close-to-call vote count in the Senate, the Working Families Party resumed its push Tuesday for a first-in-the-nation state law requiring private employers to offer up to five paid sick days.

The election of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is a boost to a bill that passed the Senate in 2008 and the House in 2009, but one legislator’s second thoughts and recent changes in membership leave the bill short of a majority in the Senate.

“It’s not a layup,” said Jon Green, the executive director of the Working Families Party. “We have to work to persuade every legislator we can.”

Joseph J. Brennan, the senior vice president of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, the leading opponent, had a similar view: The fate of the bill is uncertain, despite the election of Malloy.

The Labor and Public Employees Committee held a public hearing today on the latest version of a concept that’s been embraced by the cities of San Francisco, Milwaukee and Washington D.C., but not Congress or any state legislature.

For that reason, the prospect of passage in Connecticut has given outsized political importance to what some opponents and proponents concede is a bill with a relatively modest reach.

The bill requires private companies with 50 or more employees to give their workers paid sick time, which would be accrued at the rate of one hour for every 40 hours worked, up to an annual maximum of five days.

One major change from the original legislation proposed years ago: Any paid time off, including vacations and personal days, could count as sick time, limiting the bill’s impact to employees of companies that now offer few or no benefits.

“I think that makes it much more amenable,” said Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, a potential swing vote.

“I’m sure it’s going to pass,” said Rep. Zeke Zalaski, D-Southington, co-chairman of the labor committee, who attended a press conference in support of the bill Tuesday.

Zalaski said the latest union contract at the factory where he works offers no sick time, but the bill would not cover him or his co-workers, since they are given paid personal days and vacation time.

House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, said in testimony submitted to the labor committee that he believes the legislation can strike a balance “between protecting working families without placing onerous burdens on employers.”

CBIA said the bill still would be a major blow to a state with a reputation for a poor business environment, according to some industry rankings. For supporters, passage would be a high-profile victory in a year when labor is in retreat.

“This is not the time to be the first in the nation with a bill like this,” Brennan said.

The Senate passed the bill, 20 to 16, in 2008. But two Democrats who voted yes, Thomas A. Colapietro of Bristol and Thomas P. Gaffey of Meriden, have since been succeeded by Republican opponents, Jason Welch and Len Suzio.

Those losses would create an 18 to 18 tie. With the Malloy administration in support, a tie would be broken in favor of passage by Lt. Gov. Nancy S. Wyman, who presides over the Senate and can vote to break ties.

But two other votes also are doubt.

Bye succeeded Democrat Jonathan Harris last fall. He voted yes in 2008, but Bye voted against the bill as a House member in 2009. If she holds her position, the bill would fail, 19 to 17.

Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, voted for the bill in 2008, but his change of heart in 2009 was one reason why they Senate never took up the measure after it was passed by the House, 88 to 58.

To obtain an 18-to-18 tie, the proponents need both Bye and Meyer, assuming other votes do not change.

Meyer and Bye each said they believe the concept is good public policy, but they remain concerned about the impact on businesses in a difficult economy.

“I haven’t made up my mind about it this year yet,” said Meyer, who is reviewing the bill’s impact on employers in his district. “I think this bill is good policy if our economy is strong and these companies are fine.”

“In principle, I agree with it. I just want to make sure it doesn’t hurt our business climate,” Bye said. “We do need to make our state open for business.”

Their reluctance is emblematic of one of the biggest hurdles for proponents: Convincing legislators who think the measure is reasonable or laudatory public policy that passage would not hurt businesses–or the state’s reputation.

“It’s become this sacred ground,” Bye said of the bill.

“I am not a yes vote yet. I was three years ago. We were in strong economic times,” Meyer said. “I thought it was something that was a fair employment practice. I think it kept sickness out of the work place, which is a good thing.”

Proponents are using a survey by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, which concluded that the San Francisco economy was not harmed by passage of the paid-sick day ordinance four years ago.

To counter the survey, CBIA is relying on Michael Saltsman, a research fellow at the Employment Policies Institute, who says that many low-wage employees in San Francisco saw their hours cut after passage of the ordinance.

“That’s exactly what we would expect in a state like Connecticut,” he said.

Cheryl Folston, a livery driver who worked for years with no paid time off, driving special-needs children, said the policy is inhumane and dangerous.

“It nearly cost me my life,” she said.

Folston said she was diagnosed with a heart tumor last summer, only after she lost her job in a layoff. Folston said she doubts she would have sought medical attention if she still was driving–not if the cost was a day’s pay.