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JOAN VENNOCHI

Sick days aren’t just for governors

When he came down with flu-like symptoms, Governor Charlie Baker did what he later described as “the public health appropriate thing to do.”

He went home and stayed there until he felt better.

That logical decision was a reminder of a contentious political issue: paid sick leave.

When Baker was a gubernatorial candidate, he opposed a ballot question that requires Bay State businesses to provide up to five paid sick days for people working at companies of 11 or more. On the campaign trail, Baker said he wanted earned sick time restricted to companies of 50 or more employees.

However, voters approved the ballot measure, 59 to 41 percent. Today, the Massachusetts model provides part of the inspiration for a proposal President Obama is expected to unveil during his State of the Union speech. As reported by Politico, Obama will ask Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act, which would allow workers in businesses with 15 or more employees to earn up to seven paid sick days a year.

Three states — California, Connecticut, and Massachusetts — require some form of paid sick leave. But making it happen is not easy, as the Massachusetts experience illustrates.

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It took 10 years and ended up as a ballot question, because even in the Bay State, where Democrats overwhelmingly control the Legislature, agreement could not be reached on a bill. Activists say opponents made sure the proposal never came up for a vote on the House floor, leading to the decision to bring the question directly to voters.

“The business lobby is strong,” said Lewis Finfer, co-chair of the Raise UP Massachusetts Coalition, which collected 173,000 signatures to get the measure on the 2014 ballot.

“Without the ballot question, we’d be back at the drawing board,” added Deb Fastino, Raise UP’s other co-chair. She said a coalition of community, labor, and faith-based activists went door-to-door to make the case, and the message of “choosing between a day’s pay and your health and the health of a loved one resonated with people.” Support from hospitals also helped underscore the public health argument.

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Almost one million Bay Staters will benefit when the law is implemented July 1. Baker’s version “would have exempted several hundred thousand people from getting sick days,” said Finfer.

His campaign position put Baker on the spot when he returned to work.

“How do you justify taking a paid sick day yesterday?” a caller asked, during the governor’s appearance last Thursday on WGBH-FM’s “Boston Public Radio” show.

“I didn’t campaign against earned sick time, per se, but I didn’t support the ballot question that was before the voters and the main reason for that is it’s the broadest, most restrictive, most comprehensive earned sick time policy in the country by a wide margin,” Baker explained, as reported by State House News Service.

Despite his reservations, Baker said the state will now “implement it enthusiastically and see where it goes and I certainly hope that it doesn’t have some of the unintended consequences that I was concerned about.”

Those “unintended consequences” include fears that business always spreads: that pay and other benefits will be cut to balance the cost of paid sick leave. Yet there is also a cost associated with an employee’s decision to choose work over home, and Baker did a good job of articulating that as well.

On Tuesday, the day his illness worsened, he was scheduled to attend Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s first State of the City Address. As he started to feel really sick, Baker told the radio audience, “my thought was I could hang around here and infect everyone, go to the mayor’s State of the City and every single person I met would have an opportunity to be infected by me, or I could just go home and get out of the way and do the public health appropriate thing to do, which I did.”

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Imagine how many hands Baker would have shaken, and how many hugs and kisses he would have received had he attended Walsh’s speech at a packed Boston Symphony Hall. Staying home was the wise choice, and employees should not be penalized for making it.

Related:

Dante Ramos: Sick leave brings out blue-state tendency


Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.