February 26, 2010

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SUSAN M

— By . COVER

Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — Business owners and advocates for workers clashed Thursday at a public hearing on a bill that would require all Maine businesses to offer paid sick days.

Bettyann Sheats of Auburn said it makes sense to give workers -- particularly those who work with children or the public -- time to recover when they are sick, rather than have them spread their illnesses.

''Everything costs money,'' said Sheats, who works in the construction industry. ''We're going to pay one way or the other.''

Employers said it would be costly to implement the bill, particularly in a sour economy. They pointed out that Maine would be the only state with such a requirement.

Cynthia Lear of R.H. Reny Inc. submitted testimony saying the bill will cost the department store chain $166,000 to $190,000 a year.

''This is a cost we cannot just absorb,'' she wrote. ''How many jobs will be cut or hours drastically reduced in order for us to pay for this bill?''

Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell, D-Vassalboro -- lead sponsor of L.D. 1665, ''An Act to Prevent the Spread of H1N1'' -- said that although a large crowd showed up at the State House to oppose the bill, many people she's spoken with support it.

''I was elected by the people who cannot afford to be here,'' said Mitchell, one of seven Democrats running for governor. ''This is not the total answer necessarily, but I defy anyone to say this is not a problem.''

The bill would require employers with more than 25 workers to provide at least one hour of paid sick time for every 40 hours worked, to a maximum of 52 hours per year.

For small businesses, it would require one hour for every 80 hours worked.

The time could be used by sick employees or those needing time off to care for a sick family member. Employees would also be able to use the time to seek social or legal services if they or their family members are victims of stalking, domestic violence or sexual abuse.

Groups supporting the legislation include the Maine Council of Senior Citizens, the Maine State Employees Association, the Family Planning Association and the Maine Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

The Labor Committee will hold at least one work session on the bill before voting on it. A date has yet to be set.

Similar legislation is being considered in 12 other states and at the national level, said Laura Harper of the Maine Women's Lobby. She said San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee have adopted similar measures.

The women's lobby argues that a lack of paid sick time disproportionately hurts women, Harper said.

She said employers in child care, retail or nursing homes are less likely to offer the benefit, and that women are more likely to work in those settings than men.

Restaurant owners, lumber dealers and representatives of business groups such as Associated Builders and Contractors, Maine Merchants Association, Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Androscoggin County Chamber all testified in opposition.

''Every one of us wants to prevent the spread of H1N1 (swine flu), but this bill will have far-reaching effects in Maine,'' said Chip Morrison of the Androscoggin Chamber. ''Is this the time to put a costly mandate on Maine employers?''

Kevin Miller, a researcher from the Institute for Women's Policy Research, said more than 170,000 Maine workers would benefit from the law.

His research also shows employers would save millions of dollars by ''reducing worker turnover, cutting down on the spread of disease at work and helping employers avoid paying for low productivity.''

But testimony submitted by Curtis Picard, executive director of the Maine Merchants Association, said the bill would contribute to ''Maine's reputation as a difficult place to do business.''

''At the end of the day, we need to question why this bill is being considered,'' he wrote. ''Unemployment in Maine is around 8 percent and although we are doing better than some other states, our focus should be on creating jobs, making it easier for businesses to expand their work force.''

MaineToday Media State House Reporter Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

scover@centralmaine.com

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