House passes paid sick days bill after GOP talks 11 hours

One by one, Republicans stood Friday to take turns denouncing the nation’s first state mandate on private employers to offer paid sick days, but they could only delay, not stop, final passage. At 3:01 a.m. today, the House passed the bill, 76 to 65.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the first Democratic governor in 20 years, praised the action by House Democrats and reiterated a promise made during his campaign: He will quickly sign the bill into law, giving organized labor a win that has eluded them in 49 other states.

“Throughout my campaign and now during my time as governor, I’ve been clear about my commitment to the concept of paid sick leave, and I’m pleased that a reasonable compromise has passed both the Senate and the House,” Malloy said. “As I’ve said before, this is good public policy and specifically, good public health.”

The bill proposed years ago in Connecticut and adopted by a handful of cities, notably San Francisco, had covered far more workers and industries, but it was repeatedly narrowed to pick up votes. In the end, the bill focused primarily, though not exclusively, on service workers.

“Why would you want to eat food from a sick restaurant cook? Or have your children taken care of by a sick day care worker? The simple answer is–you wouldn’t. And now, you won’t have to,” Malloy said.

But even the narrowed bill remained a potent symbol to businesses of an overreaching state government in a weak economy, even to some companies that already provde paid time off in excess of the sick leave bill. And that prompted Republicans to threaten to talk for days.

“We don’t want to make this a game or a marathon,” said House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk. “But given what has gone on, this bill has become the most important of the session.”

Cafero complained about tax increases passed weeks ago, the state’s stubbornly high unemployment, and its inability to generate jobs over the past 22 years. Passage, he said, would convey hostility to business.

In the end, the GOP settled for a little more than 11 hours. The bill passed with no Republican votes in the House and one in the Senate, John Kissel of Enfield.

The House debate was one-sided. One of the oldest guidelines in the House is when you have the votes, you vote; when you don’t have the votes, you talk. So, the Republicans talked, and talked, and talked – about two dozen of them by 1 a.m. and nearly 30 by 2:45 a.m., when Cafero began his summation.

“We’re hanging on by a thread,” Cafero said, describing the plea of many small businesses.

House Majority Leader J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said the state need not choose between helping workers or business. He blamed proponents on both sides for engaging in hyperbole.

“We can do both. We can encourage and support our business in this state, and we can help protect our workers,” Sharkey said. “Let’s stop the hyperbole. Let’s stop the exaggeration.”

The audience grew sparse during the debate.

“Is anybody alive out there?” yelled Rep. Richard Smith, R-New Fairfield, as he stood to address the chamber at 1:15 a.m.

It was left to Rep. Zeke Zalaski, D-Southington, the burly co-chairman of the Labor and Public Employees Committee, to periodically stand and try to answer questions posed by the GOP.

The bill requires companies with 50 or more employees 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, nor are manufacturers or YMCAs and YWCAs — exemptions sought as conditions for support by several Democratic senators.

Cafero seized on the exemptions as evidence that the bill was bad public policy: If the mandate was such a good idea, why were so many employers exempted? It was a theme throughout the debate.

“We have butchers and bakers. Are candlestick makers covered?” asked Rep. Noreen S. Kokoruda, R-Madison. Or would they be exempted as manufacturers?

“That is an excellent question,” Zalaski replied. “Maybe you should read the bill and see if candlestick makers are on the list.”

Malloy made the rounds Friday, visiting some House Democrats as a caucus was breaking up. It was light conversation, not heavy lobbying.

“I was trying to buck everybody up because clearly they are going to be here a long time,” Malloy said, as he made his way back to his office on the other side of the Capitol. “I wanted them to know that even if I’m not here, I’ll be feeling their pain.”

But the march to passage was anticlimactic. As Friday dissolved into Saturday, lobbyists stopped trying to lobby on paid sick days as the ranks of the uncommitted thinned and then disappeared.

A trio of lobbyists from the Connecticut Business and Industry Association congregated near the GOP caucus room. They appreciated the GOP efforts to draw attention to paid sick days with the long debate.

Joseph Brennan, CBIA’s vice president of legislative affairs, said Malloy and Democratic legislators had indicated at the beginning of the session that they were dedicated to improving the state’s business climate. Instead, he said, they adopted a record tax increase and pushed anti-business bills, such as paid sick days and a captive audience bill that would have barred employers from forcing employees from attending political meetings.

“I think there is a certain amount of frustration,” Brennan said. “When is enough enough?”

Asked how long he would remain, Brennan, smiled and replied, “Until midnight Wednesday.”

That is the legislature’s deadline for adjourning the annual session.

Proponents of the bill, including representatives of the Working Families Party and the Service Employees International Union, sat on benches outside the House, munching on trail mix.

“For Connecticut residents who believe in common sense and common decency, today is a proud day,” said Jon Green, executive director of Connecticut Working Families. “Especially in difficult times, no one should have to choose between their job and their health, or between being a good employee and a good parent.”

A betting pool was organized at midday Friday on how long the debate would last. One optimist picked eight hours; he was out of the running at 11:42 p.m. Friday. At the other extreme, someone picked 25 hours–the limit allowed by the pool’s organizers.