Metro

Sick leave measure divides workers, businesses

Businesses back concept but not the specifics in state ballot item

Volunteers at the Coalition for Social Justice get last minute instructions before heading out to canvas voters in Fall River about the sick pay initiative.
Robert E. Klein for the Boston Globe
Volunteers at the Coalition for Social Justice get last minute instructions before heading out to canvas voters in Fall River about the sick pay initiative.

FALL RIVER — Timothy
Chouinard, 39, was sitting on his porch having a drink and listening to music when two members of the Coalition for Social Justice started up the steps of the three-decker.

“I knew you guys were going to stop,” he said, before Joe DiMauro started his well-rehearsed spiel.

“Earned sick time is going to be on the ballot this coming November, Question No. 4. For every 30 hours a worker works, they earn an hour of sick time,” DiMauro began, as his vote
canvassing partner, Maria Fortes, looked on. “That would be . . . important, right?” he asked.

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“Absolutely,” Chouinard said. “I work in a factory . . . right here in Fall River. I’m the typical person that you guys are working for right here.”

Robert E. Klein for the Boston Globe
Joe DiMauro and Maria Fortes from the Coalition for Social Justice spoke with Timothy Chouinard about the sick pay initiative.
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In fact, Chouinard said, he was out of work the day before because he sprained his ankle and his stepsons were ill — and the absence cost him a day’s pay, about $80 to $100. His wife, Noemi Borges, works at the same place and was out of work for two days because their boys were sick. She lost two days’ pay.

“So this bill would ensure that you do get paid for that day,” DiMauro said.

“I support this then. Hell, yeah,” Chouinard said.

The issue has also divided the candidates

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Massachusetts voters will be asked to answer four questions on their ballots in November. The fourth asks if they approve of a proposed law that says Massachusetts employees would be able to earn sick time and use it to miss work if sick or caring for an ill child, parent, or spouse. Doctor’s appointments would be covered, as would the “psychological, physical, or legal effects of domestic violence,” according to the ballot question.

RELATED: Evan Horowitz: Everyone gets sick. Should everyone get sick days?

Employees who work for companies with 11 or more staff members could earn and use up to 40 hours of paid sick time in a year. People working for smaller companies could earn and use the same amount of unpaid time. Employees would earn one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked and begin accruing that time after a 90-day probationary period.

The issue has been pushed by workers’ rights groups who say the law would benefit one out of three workers in Massachusetts, or about 1 million people. It is opposed by business associations, who say they agree with the concept of giving employees time off when they are sick but disagree with the specific requirements of the ballot question.

The issue has also divided the candidates for governor. Attorney General Martha Coakley, the Democratic nominee, and Evan Falchuk, an independent candidate, said they plan to vote “yes” on this question Nov. 4. Charlie Baker, the Republican nominee, and Jeff McCormick, an independent, both say they plan to vote “no.”

“The question itself presents some issues for workers and small business owners,” said Bill Vernon, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business . “First of all, it will cost money. It’s going to hurt workers in one of a few buckets: Wages, vacation time, retirement benefits, health care benefits. And I would contend that workers would put sick time on the bottom of that list in terms of benefits. You’re going to give up something.”

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Vernon’s group represents about 8,000 Massachusetts small businesses that average five employees. He said Question 4 would have more of an impact on certain industries than others. “In my office — we’re a small office, three people — if one of us is sick, we muddle through for a day or two and get the work done,” he said. “If you work in the service industry, restaurant, retail, small manufacturers, then you have repercussions where you have to pay twice. You have to pay for the person who is out sick and the person who has to cover the shift.”

Erin Calvo-Bacci, owner of a chocolate retailer in Reading and chocolate manufacturer in Swampscott, agrees.

She offers paid time off to those members of her staff in leadership roles. But because both businesses – the Chocolate Truffle and Bacci Chocolate Design — are run under an umbrella corporation, her overall company has more than 20 employees, so the law would require her to offer paid time off to those who call in sick.

What concerns her is the potential for the law to create an imbalance where irresponsible employees are rewarded to the detriment of hard-working, future hires. She fears it will create reluctance among employers to hire single mothers, people with aging parents, and veterans with medical issues.

“If you’re looking at someone who may need to take time off, you have to weigh it,” she said, calling the ballot question “an economic depressant.”

The ballot question does, however, include a provision that creates flexibility for employers: If a sick employee misses time on the job but agrees to work the same number of hours or shifts in the same or next pay period, he or she does not have to use earned sick time and the employer does not have to pay for that missed time.

“For example,” said Emily Spieler, a professor at Northeastern University School of Law who specializes in employment and labor law, “I run a restaurant, and I have someone call in sick. It means if I say to that person, ‘Look would you work an extra shift next week?’ And they say ‘yes,’ and I call someone else and say ‘Can you come in? A coworker is sick.’ And they say ‘yes.’ Then it doesn’t cost anything.”

“It’s interesting,” she said. “This is a provision, assuming that the employer works . . . with the employee, can provide flexibility on both sides.”

There are just two states with earned sick time laws – Connecticut and California – although several cities, including San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, have such ordinances. Studies show there is little to no negative impact on business growth and innovation, Spieler said.

Nonetheless, she said, the fears from Massachusetts businesses are not unexpected.

Mandated requirements “make businesses anxious, especially small businesses,” she said. “But once they come into effect and people know how to work with them, they don’t have the negative effect people claim when they are being politicized.”

Akilah Johnson can be reached at akilah.johnson@globe.com.