Olive Chase has built a thriving catering business on Cape Cod, arranging everything from cheeseburger buffets on the beach to five-course meals for wealthy museum donors.
In her nearly 30 years at the helm of the Casual Gourmet, Chase has had to adapt to some major shifts in business regulations, but the complex sick time law going into effect July 1 is turning out to be the biggest challenge yet.
“I feel like I’m in a vise right now,” Chase said. “This is a major change to our work and labor hours. Major. My HR department is me and my bookkeeper. I’m not Walmart here.”
Passed by voters in a ballot measure last fall, the law requires that companies with 11 or more employees give workers up to 40 hours of paid sick time a year. Those with fewer than 11 may offer it unpaid. The law applies to all employees, including part-time and seasonal workers, giving 1 million more workers access to sick leave across the state and allowing them to accrue one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked.
Business owners have turned out in droves for informational seminars about the law to express concern, confusion, even outrage. A number of those who own small companies mistakenly believe the law doesn’t apply to them, industry groups say, and many of these small operations don’t have a human resources director who can decipher the complex regulations issued by the state.
“We have seldom seen the level of concern from employers that we’re seeing with this issue,” said Christopher Geehern, spokesman for Associated Industries of Massachusetts, one of the state’s largest business groups.
Seasonal operations, from landscapers in Pittsfield to restaurateurs in Provincetown, stand to bear the brunt of the new law. Some are struggling to find enough workers and implement the new regulations as their busiest time of year approaches; most have an abundance of part-time staff who will be getting sick days for the first time.
Adding to the difficulties, the details of the law are not yet set in stone. The attorney general’s office will not issue the final regulations until June 19, less than two weeks before the law goes into effect. Companies that already offer sick time have until Jan. 1 to fully comply with the law, but they will have to make some adjustments right away, such as extending sick leave to part-timers.
Attorney General Maura Healey’s office said it is aware of the business concerns.
“Our office has worked closely with the business community to craft workable and clear rules for a complex law and their input will be reflected throughout the final regulations,” Healey said in a statement.
Chase, the Cape Cod caterer, is working 80 hours a week as wedding season ramps up, and she said she knows additional headaches will arise when the law kicks in. For example, she hires 70 seasonal workers to bartend and serve at weddings, but sometimes they don’t show up for work on beautiful summer days, she said. Now that they will be entitled to paid sick time, she fears unscheduled absences could become an epidemic at the end of the season when they have earned a day or two of paid time off.
“They will call in sick to go to the beach, so not only are they going to the beach, but I can pay them to go to the beach,” she said.
If all seasonal workers took all their sick time, Chase estimates, her costs would rise $20,000 a year, double that if she had to fill each shift with another worker. In addition, now that the payroll is more complicated, she might have to hire another part-time bookkeeper.
If sick time costs get too high, Chase said, she may have to rethink raises.
Andrew Wright, the general manager at Arnold’s Lobster & Clam Bar in Eastham, said the new law is a “record-keeping nightmare,” especially for small businesses on the Lower Cape that are open only 125 days a year and struggling to find workers.
When community groups and unions began pushing for the new sick time law, they said they envisioned it helping single mothers and parents worried about losing their jobs, or a day’s pay, if they have to take a child to a doctor’s appointment.
But many of Wright’s 55 restaurant employees are young people, not single mothers.
“It doesn’t introduce a financial hardship for a 14-year-old if he doesn’t get paid for a day,” Wright said, blasting the law’s “one-size-fits-all solution.”
Larry Drago, whose Biz-Checks Payroll company in Marstons Mills serves 750 clients, including the Casual Gourmet, says all his clients will at the very least have to keep more detailed records or upgrade their payroll systems to comply with the law. Even those that already offer sick time probably will have to change the way workers accrue it, he noted, because the law requires that workers get an hour of sick time per 30 hours worked, including overtime, while many companies calculate sick time per pay period.
Those that lump together all paid time off, with interchangeable sick and vacation days, will have to start tracking them separately.
Businesses with seasonal employees, which already pay high unemployment taxes because so many of their workers use the system, will have the additional hassle of carrying over summertime workers’ unused sick hours.
An additional hurdle for small seasonal businesses: offering paid sick time when there are an abundance of workers on the payroll and unpaid sick time if that number dips below 11.
“My head is spinning, and I do this for a living,” Drago said. “A guy who’s a little restaurant owner on the Midcape who’s trying to do his payroll by himself, has he got any chance of making the changes he needs to make? Not in 10 days.”
The attorney general’s office said it won’t go after businesses that are making a good-faith effort to comply, although Associated Industries of Massachusetts has raised concerns that workers could file lawsuits anyway.
In addition to holding public hearings, the attorney general has been adjusting regulations to address employers’ concerns, resulting in some very specific rules. The so-called “bakery rule,” developed for companies that need employees to report to work precisely at the start of a shift, creates an exception to the requirement that workers can take as little as one hour of sick time. Bakery truck drivers who need to leave by 4:30 a.m. to get their deliveries out on time, for instance, will not be allowed to show up late and claim it as sick time.
One adjustment in the works will prevent seasonal employees who have worked less than 300 hours — say, summertime ice cream scoopers who work a few days a week — from carrying over sick time if they don’t return to work for more than six months.
As for those workers Chase is worried about calling in sick to go to the beach? The final regulations will allow her to require a doctor’s note from workers who call in sick during their last two weeks on the schedule.
Chase is not opposed to offering her employees paid sick time. She offered health insurance to her full-timers before it was required, pays her servers as much as $20 an hour, and provides free meals every day.
“I want to do the right thing,” she said. “I’m just trying to figure out what the right thing is.”