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Yes on Question 4: Earned sick time for all

More than 100 employees, business owners, parents, and nurses showed support for earned sick time legislation.

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More than 100 employees, business owners, parents, and nurses showed support for earned sick time legislation.

QUESTION 4 on the November ballot is a sweeping measure that would provide all Massachusetts workers the chance to earn sick leave — in many cases, with pay. If passed, the referendum would put Massachusetts in line with a handful of forward-thinking cities and just two other states, California and Connecticut. The measure is a welcome opportunity for the Commonwealth to lead, and voters should approve it.

The ballot measure, promoted by labor unions and endorsed by some business groups, hospitals, and economists, would allow workers to earn up to 40 hours per year of sick leave — an hour of leave for every 30 hours they work. This leave could also be used to care for a sick child, spouse, or parent. Workers for companies with 10 or fewer employees would earn unpaid leave; workers for companies with 11 or more employees would be paid for their time off. The measure would apply to part-time workers as well, and would affect nearly one-third of Massachusetts workers — about 900,000 people, many of them in low-wage jobs. It would allow home health care workers to receive the benefit, as well, by classifying them as state employees for the purposes of the law.

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Critics — such as the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, the Massachusetts Retailers Association, Associated Industries of Massachusetts — raise understandable concerns that the measure would burden small businesses with extra costs and administrative hassles. It’s likely, though, that those fears will prove overstated in practice. Many small businesses already keep track of their employees’ hours; the ballot measure allows them, in some cases, to let workers swap shifts rather than taking paid leave. The measure would require an employee to work 90 days before using a sick day — effectively exempting seasonal workers — and to provide a doctor’s note for an absence of three days or more. It would exempt companies that already offer more generous benefits, such as paid time off, from providing additional sick time. And while business groups cite fears about abuse, studies show that most workers with access to paid sick leave use less time than is available to them. Studies also show that sick leave has been implemented in several large cities with only modest effects on businesses.

Nonetheless, it would be reasonable to expect a small rise in the cost of goods and services to accompany this measure. That’s something consumers should be willing to bear. Because while the ballot measure would clearly help many individual workers, it would also benefit society as a whole. It would contribute to public health by discouraging people from going to work when they’re ill, and by making it easier for them to visit doctors. (The measure would also allow the use of leave for routine medical appointments.) It would increase stability for children, whose parents might otherwise be forced to choose between keeping a job and caring for a sick child.

In some ways, Massachusetts’ proposal is broader than California’s, which allows workers to accrue three sick days per year, rather than five. It is much broader than Connecticut’s, which excludes certain types of companies and only applies to businesses with 50 or more employees. (This limits the law’s effects on businesses, but also leaves more families without help.) Critics are right that a ballot question is a blunt instrument for making complicated changes to labor law. But earned sick leave, in the past, has gained no traction in the State House. If this measure passes and proves to have unintended consequences, the Legislature should stand ready to modify the legal language, so long as the basic principle is intact: a humane, reasonable law that treats workers with dignity and respect.

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