Guest Commentary: Pass the Healthy Working Families Act

By Delegate Luke Clippinger

Last summer I was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. I had been feeling tired all the time for months and didn’t know why. I caught up on sleep after the legislative session, thinking it would get better, but after a while I relented and went to see my doctor. After receiving the results of some blood work, he sent me directly to the hospital. I was in the hospital for several days at the University of Maryland Greenebaum Comprehensive Cancer Center, where I was diagnosed and began treatment.

I was lucky. Not only because my cancer is now in remission, but also because I had paid sick leave from my job as an assistant state’s attorney for Anne Arundel County. It meant that I didn’t have to worry about how I would pay my mortgage, or whether the electricity might get cut off. I was able to take the time I needed for treatment.

My constituent John Woods wasn’t so lucky. He spent years bartending and waiting tables while also teaching college classes part time. The Highlandtown resident would work two or three jobs at a time, working up to 80 hours a week to make ends meet. John caught strep throat at least three times a year. A simple doctor’s visit and antibiotics would have helped him get better. However, he didn’t have paid sick leave, so he would often go to work with a fever because he needed the money to pay for the doctor and medicine, not to mention his groceries and electric bill.

Hundreds of thousands of Marylanders are like John. The working people who can least afford to lose a day’s pay if they or their child gets sick are also the least likely to have access to paid sick days. Only 28 percent of people in the bottom 10 percent of the earnings scale have access to paid sick leave, compared to 90 percent of workers in the top 10 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics [https://www.bls.gov/news.release/ebs2.t06.htm]. All told, over 750,000 Marylanders don’t have access to a single paid sick day.

In real life, that means the single mother who earns minimum wage faces the agonizing choice of sending a sick kid to school or losing a day’s pay. Or a restaurant worker just getting over the stomach bug might choose to go to work – and risk infecting coworkers and customers – rather than miss out on wages that help put food on his own table. Or a person who has to undergo life-saving cancer treatment might have to do so while also wondering whether they’ll be able to make their next mortgage payment.

For five years, the General Assembly has considered legislation to fix this problem. This year, after working with advocates and stakeholders, including business owners, to get the bill just right, we are almost certain to pass a measure to ensure access to earned paid sick days for Maryland workers.

In previous years, while we continued the important work of hammering out the details of this critical policy, Gov. Larry Hogan has chosen to sit on the sidelines, declining to take a position.

This year, with the issue gaining momentum across the country and proving popular in polls, Hogan has introduced his own, watered down version. While the Healthy Working Families Act, a bill for which I and Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton are the lead sponsors, would guarantee access to earned paid sick days for 512,000 working Marylanders and job protected leave for another 216,000, Governor Hogan’s proposal would promise paid time off to only 272,000 workers and would not provide other workers with job-protected leave.

Hogan claims his proposal is better for business. But in places that have implemented meaningful paid sick leave policies that more closely resemble the Healthy Working Families Act, such as California, Washington, D.C., and New York City, studies have found minimal negative impacts and growing employer support for the policies.

I’m glad Governor Hogan has finally recognized that too many Marylanders face the prospect of not being able to pay their bills or even losing their job if they get sick, but his alternative proposal is an inadequate response to a very real problem. The Healthy Working Families Act helps to ensure that the burden of illness is not compounded by the burden of poverty. I call on Governor Hogan to join me and the growing coalition to pass HB-1/SB-230.

Del. Luke Clippinger represents the 46th District in Baltimore city.

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