Guest Commentary: Taking Leave of Our Values
By Cory McCray
During its 2017 session, the Maryland General Assembly passed paid sick leave legislation. This bill guaranteed that any business with over 15 employees will still compensate employees who need to call in sick, for up to 40 hours each year.
For the millions of Marylanders who live paycheck-to-paycheck, or who lack sufficient savings to survive unplanned financial emergencies, this protection would allow them to make safe, healthy choices during times of illness. Unfortunately, this legislation was vetoed by the governor, preventing working families across the state from receiving additional protections.
In the wake of gubernatorial vetoes, public policy takes on a heightened political tone. It becomes fashionable for politicians to turn life-changing regulations into mere rhetorical piñatas, where the real object is political gain, not the benefit of their constituents. Democrats who were previously hesitant to offer their support suddenly become vocal proponents, laying claim to a moral high ground that just months earlier they refused to occupy unless its impact was watered down. This is exactly what occurred in the instance of paid sick leave.
The original paid sick leave bill would have covered illness-related work absences for up to 48 hours each year. This stronger, more impactful legislation made it safely through the House of Delegates during the 2017 session with the support of 88 legislators from across the state of Maryland. Once the bill made it to the state Senate, however, its trajectory went awry.
Republican Sen. Steve Hershey introduced an amendment on the senate floor, where Republican amendments seldom pass. The amendment reduced the bill’s scope from 48 hours to 40 hours.
That means if you’re a restaurant worker who’s already been ill four days this year, and you get the flu in December, you need to recover in just one day’s time. Otherwise you may have to choose between the day’s pay you were going to use for your children’s Christmas presents, or showing up for a job that requires you to handle other people’s food, potentially passing your illness on to them.
As expected, the Republican caucus stood in lock step with Sen. Hershey, voting unanimously in favor of his amendment. Moments like these provide legislators a critical opportunity to reaffirm what they stand for and whom they stand with. Accordingly, the Republican opposition to this legislation presented the occasion for Democrats to demonstrate unity and re-emphasize our support for hardworking Maryland families.
Unfortunately, my district’s senator, Nathaniel McFadden, shirked this responsibility. Instead of championing legislation that would have directly benefited our constituents, McFadden joined Republicans to weaken it substantially.
In Baltimore we have become accustomed to supporting incumbent legislators just because they are incumbents, without questioning what they have done for us. Do they truly represent Democratic values? Have those values translated into real wins for our communities, and the quality of life we deserve? Would residents in more affluent municipalities tolerate decades of diminishing returns, coupled with blame shifting to state government, in spite of our legislators being part of state government?
How can a senator from one of the state’s five most impoverished districts vote to weaken protections that his constituents would benefit so strongly from? At what point does that track record become an argument against incumbency, instead of in favor of it?
When I talk to voters in my district, I point to legislative wins that strengthen funding for apprenticeships and create oversight for infrastructure spending in our schools, so that our neighborhoods get their fair share. I cite bill numbers like HB 290 (2016), HB 467 (2017), and HB 0076 (2017) so that they can check the facts, and see that I worked with my colleagues to rally the support necessary to pass these laws.
For too long we have allowed our leaders to lower our expectations, instead of requiring that they demonstrate powerful legislative wins each year in order to maintain our support. In a city of over 600,000, there is no question that we have enough talented men and women to fill all our offices with dynamic leaders. If our incumbents have not lived up to that mantel, someone else will.
I’m running for state Senate in the 45th legislative district to give my neighbors that option, and to spend the next four years delivering on it.
Cory McCray, a Democrat, is a member of the House of Delegates and a candidate for state Senate in the 45th district in Baltimore city.