Senate passes first state mandate for paid sick days

With strong support from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the Senate voted 18 to 17 Wednesday to pass the nation’s first state mandate on private employers to offer paid sick days. It now goes to the House, where passage is expected.

The bill, which passed with only one Republican vote, has a limited reach, applying to dozens of specific types of service workers at companies with at least 50 employees. Sponsors say it will affect 300,000 workers.


Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia

But it was celebrated by labor as an important victory for low-wage workers and bemoaned by business as an ill-timed symbol of Connecticut’s hostile business climate.

“It makes our state a leader in terms of better public health and common sense and common decency,” said Jon Green, director of the Working Families Party.

The Connecticut Business and Industry Association called the bill a betrayal by an administration and legislature that has promise to declare Connecticut “open for business.”

“This bill is a travesty. It’s an incredible disappointment,” said Bonnie Stewart, a vice president of CBIA. “What this measure really does is slam the door in the face of business.”

The bill, which is expected to pass the House despite strong Republican opposition, requires affected companies to give one hour of sick time for every 40 hours of work, up to a maximum of five days a year. It is effective Jan. 1.

An employer can count vacation time, personal days and any other paid time off against the requirement. Seasonal and temporary workers are not covered.

Supporters broke into applause as the tally was announced. Outside the chamber, the advocates posed for a photograph.

Sen. Edith G. Prague, D-Columbia, the lead sponsor, walked across the Senate chamber and shook hands with the sole Republican to vote yes, John A. Kissel of Enfield.

“I am so proud we passed this legislation,” Prague said, as supporters lined up to congratulate her.

Prague said the comptroller’s office estimated the bill could mean new benefits for 300,000 workers, most them women and many of them with young children. The bill allows a parent to take a sick day to care for a sick child.

“I applaud the 18 senators who voted for this bill. This piece of legislation is a reasonable compromise that represents good public policy. It exempts industries where appropriate, it ensures that the benefit won’t be abused, and most importantly, it protects public health,” Malloy said.

To win the votes for its narrow passage, proponents exempted manufacturers, municipalities and, at the insistence of one senator, YMCAs.

Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, worried about the impact on the Soundview YMCA in his district, so bill exempted any nationally charted, tax-exempt organization that provides recreation, child care and education.

The exemptions led Republican opponents to claim the bill was crafted with an eye toward political expediency, not public policy.

Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, noted that benefit is required of a large restaurant, but not the school cafeteria where his children eat daily.

“It’s OK if our kids are served food from someone who is sick, but it’s not OK if someone goes into a restaurant?” McKinney said.

Child care workers at the YWCA in his district are not covered, but they could be at other day care centers.

“I guess some children are more important than others,” McKinney said.

But Prague said the bill extends the most basic of benefits to low-wage service workers such as school bus drivers, health aides and food servers.

“This is a public health issue,” Prague said. “If they go to work sick, they infect people around them.”

Last week, it appeared the bill would pass on an 18 to 18 vote, with Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman breaking the tie in favor of passage.

Then one of two Republican senators who favored the bill, Leonard Fasano of North Haven, left the Capitol after the unexpected death of his law partner’s wife.

But Sen. Eileen Daily, D-Westbrook, who had voted against a similar bill, told leaders Tuesday she could vote for the revised version with the exemptions of manufacturers and seasonal employees.

“Up and down the river and the Sound, there is a lot of seasonal stuff,” Daily said.

Daily said no other political considerations went into her change of vote.

With the new Democratic governor making the bill a priority, the Republicans tried to pressure Kissel, the only GOP senator to vote yes, to reconsider.

Kissel refused, saying he had made a comittment. But he did publicly address one concern of opponents: That the sponsors will be back next year with a broader version.

“I will be very hesitant to revisit it,” Kissel said.

The bill passed over the opposition of every other Republican present and five Democrats: Bob Duff of Norwalk, Paul Doyle of Wethersfield, Gayle Slossberg of Milford, Andrew Maynard of Stonington and Joan Hartley of Waterbury.

Opponents dominated the six-hour debate, portraying the legislation as an unnecessary intrusion into business.

“I think a lot of the attitude in this chamber is that business peiople are bad guys,” said Sen. Rob Kane, R-Watertown, a small business owner. “The backbone of the economy in Connecticut are people like me.”

McKinney said one provision of the bill give the Department of Labor greater authority to regulate disputes over time off that reach beyond paid sick days. The measure seemed aimed at AT&T, which has had a long dispute with a union, the Communication Workers of America, he said

The Republican leader also said the timing was awful, coming as the state still is struggling to grow jobs.

But Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, called the bill a modest measure.

“It is talking about a handful of sick days,” Williams said.

He said the arguments by opponents that the measure is an ill-timed intrusion by government into the world of business were used against the passage of the nation’s child labor laws, the 40-hour work week and the eight-hour work day.

As for bad timing, Williams said child labor protections were passed in the depths of the Great Depression.