Politics

Evan Horowitz

Question 4 versus the Baker sick-time plan

If you get sick, or your kids get sick, should you be able to take time off without risking your job? And should you get paid for that time? Those are the big issues behind ballot Question 4, which voters will get to decide in November and which has lately become a point of dissension in the governor’s race.

Democrat Martha Coakley supports the initiative, while Republican Charlie Baker opposes it. His opposition focuses mainly on small business. Specifically, how big does a business have to be before it can afford to pay its employees for sick days? Is 11 employees big enough, as the current ballot initiative has it? Or should paid sick leave be a requirement only for businesses with more than 50 employees, as Baker has proposed?

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The difference between these cutoffs is substantial. Under Baker’s plan, roughly 30 percent fewer workers would get paid sick leave.

How many people work at small businesses?

Although it’s commonplace to refer to small business as the “backbone of our economy,” in fact small business is small. If you have a job in Massachusetts, odds are you work for a company with more than 500 employees. Big companies like that account for more than half of the state workforce.

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If “small business” includes all businesses with fewer than 50 employees, then by that definition the sector includes roughly one in four workers. But if, instead, small business conjures images of cute retail shops or fledgling operations with a staff you could count on your fingers, it’s just one in 10 Massachusetts workers.

Does that mean Baker’s alternative would affect relatively few people?

No, it doesn’t. While it’s true that small businesses don’t employ that many people, they also don’t provide much in the way of paid sick leave. That means there are a lot of employees at small businesses who would benefit from an earned sick days mandate.

How many would get paid leave under the two plans?

As currently written, the ballot initiative would benefit about 500,000 people in Massachusetts, or roughly one of every six workers in the state. That’s a smaller number than advocates tout, but it accounts for the fact that some people with “flex time” and other leave policies might not actually get additional time off. Instead, they might see some of their vacation days turn into sick days.

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Baker’s plan would cover significantly fewer people, precisely because workers without paid leave tend to be concentrated in small businesses. There are roughly 440,000 people working at businesses with fewer than 50 employees (his cutoff), but more than 10 (the ballot cutoff). Just over half of them already have paid sick days, and another 10 percent or so may have some kind of flex time. That leaves roughly 150,000 people who stand to benefit from the ballot initiative but who would be excluded under Baker’s plan.

Would Baker’s alternative help small businesses?

It certainly could. Small businesses don’t have a large pool of workers. If even a single salesperson or waiter has to stay home sick, it can cause a cascade of staffing issues. And if the business has to get a replacement — while still paying the sick employee — that’s an additional burden.

Exempting small businesses from a paid sick days requirement could help them avoid these problems.

Yet the most vulnerable businesses are the smallest ones, and they’re already exempt under the ballot initiative. In a business with 30 or 40 employees, it’s easier to compensate if a worker calls in sick.

Can I vote for Baker’s plan?

No. At this point, his proposal is just a campaign talking point.

When you enter the voting booth on Nov. 4, you can choose either to support or oppose the existing earned sick time proposal, which benefits a larger number of workers because it requires more businesses to provide paid sick time.

Evan Horowitz can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com.
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