BOSTON — Every flu season for the last four years, legislation has been proposed to give all Massachusetts workers paid sick days. Now, a Cape legislator is hoping the idea will become law next year.
"We don't want people sending sick kids to school because they have no opportunity to use day care," said state Sen. Dan Wolf, D-Harwich, who supports the bill that gives workers paid sick days for themselves or to care for family. "We don't want people to not take sick days because they can't afford to."
Wolf, co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, hopes to advance the bill to the full Legislature in January.
The legislation, also being pushed by the Massachusetts Paid Leave Coalition, an organization coordinated by Greater Boston Legal Services, would allow workers to earn up to seven paid sick days each year. The sick days could be used when the worker or a family member is sick or has a medical appointment.
The coalition says that more than one-third of all private sector workers in the Bay State do not have access to paid sick days, and half of all private sector workers cannot use sick time to care for family members.
Employees who work for Cape Air and Nantucket Airlines, which Wolf co-founded, do get sick days.
"My experience is most employees are honest, and that most employees would not take advantage of paid sick days," Wolf said in a telephone interview.
But not all Cape employers favor the bill. Wendy Northcross, chief executive officer of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, said the legislation could discourage the creation of new jobs, especially at companies that hire seasonal employees.
"People aren't going to bring on more employees if they can't afford the benefits they're going to pay," Northcross said in a telephone interview. "There's always that delicate balance between doing right by the worker and avoiding abused benefits."
Northcross said many businesses are already offering paid sick days. "Show us where the abuses are," she said.
William Zammer, a Cape restaurateur who owns the Coonamessett Inn in Falmouth and other properties, said his paid sick day policy is "discretionary."
"Our full-time employees, if they need time off, we take care of them," he said.
Zammer said he would "love to be able to give a lot more of these benefits" to all of his employees, but declining income in recent years has prevented him from doing so.
"There's only so much you can give and stay in business," he said.
Pam Jones, the Boston Public Health Commission's director of policy and planning, said not having paid sick days affects low-wage workers disproportionately.
"Low-wage workers are less likely to be offered paid sick days, and because of their income, are less likely to be able to take unpaid sick days off," Jones said at a Statehouse briefing on Wednesday.
For example, the state commission recommends that people with the flu stay home for at least four days after the onset of symptoms or for one day after the symptoms subside. But, Jones said the suggestion, "is really only reasonable when (workers) can afford to be at home."
Connecticut, which adopted a law in July, is the only state to mandate paid sick days. Some cities, including New York City, Philadelphia, Seattle and San Francisco, have also implemented laws to ensure paid sick days for workers.
This is the fourth time paid sick day legislation has been proposed in Massachusetts. In all attempts thus far, the bill stalled in committee.
Wolf believes the legislation has a good chance at passing his committee with some changes, including provisions to cushion the impact on small businesses, he said.
"As the bill moves through, there would be many ways we would look at the potential business impact," Wolf said.
Elizabeth Toulan, coordinator of Massachusetts coalition, said she also is optimistic that the legislation will pass when the Legislature reconvenes in January.
"We're trying to establish a sensible labor standard that protects the public health, and protects workers and their access to jobs and income. So it's not surprising that something like this would take multiple sessions to find the progress that we're looking for," "‰Toulan said.