New Hampshire considering paid sick leave mandate

AP News
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Posted: Nov 23, 2009 9:52 AM

Moving company owner Michael Stamm thinks if New Hampshire wants to mandate paid sick days for his business, New Hampshire should pay for them, not him.

Stamm, owner of Starving Artists Movers in Concord, employs 15-17 full- and part-time workers over the course of a year. His company would be mandated to provide three paid sick days under a bill being considered by state lawmakers.

Stamm said he'll consider paying workers less if he has to absorb sick pay costs.

"It would put more pressure on an already shrinking margin," he said.

State Rep. John Knowles, a Hudson Democrat who led the subcommittee that worked on the sick leave bill, hears Stamm's concern about government mandates.

"But sometimes government does things for the benefit of all the people not just a particular individual," he said. "I think this is one of those times."

Nearly 216,000 New Hampshire private-sector workers lack paid sick days, or about 42 percent of the work force, according to a study by the Institute for Women's Policy Research. Nationally, roughly one-third of workers don't have paid sick leave, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

At least a dozen states have considered bills in the last year mandating paid sick leave. Maine's Senate president announced last month she plans to introduce legislation for next year's session. The bill would entitle employees of larger businesses _ those with 25 or more workers _ to up to six paid sick days a year. Smaller businesses would be guaranteed three days. Employees would have to accrue the time.

San Francisco and Washington, D.C., require some employers to provide the paid leave days, and Congress is considering federal legislation to do the same.

If federal and state laws are enacted, New Hampshire will enforce the stricter of the two, said state Labor Commissioner George Copadis.

The push for expanded sick benefits comes amid a swine and seasonal flu season that has health officials making frequent pleas for those who are sick to stay at home.

Stamm acknowledges his workers _ like many without paid sick leave _ come to work sick to avoid losing pay. Knowles believes the minimal benefit mandated by the bill would protect the public from serious contagious diseases like the flu.

The bill would require employers with 15 or more workers to provide three paid sick days for the workers with the company at least six months. The time would accrue at one hour per 30 hours worked, could not be carried into the next year without the employer's approval and could not be cashed out when the employee quits or is fired. Employers who already offer three or more days of vacation or other personal leave time off would be exempt since their workers could use that time when they are sick to avoid losing pay.

The House Labor, Industrial and Rehabilitative Services Committee votes Tuesday for the second time on whether to recommend passing the bill. The first vote earlier this month ended in a tie and another close vote is expected this time.

Should the committee recommend passing it, the bill still must win approval from the House, Senate and governor.

Gov. John Lynch is lukewarm to the idea.

"We encourage businesses to work with employees so they can stay home when they are sick, but we do not think it is necessary to mandate paid sick leave," said Lynch spokesman Colin Manning.

Many business groups are opposed. They argue paid sick leave isn't necessarily a bad idea to retain workers and avoid productivity loss due to sickness spread among the staff. But they maintain government has no business mandating what benefits employers offer workers.

Tom Boucher, chief executive and part-owner of T-Bones and Cactus Jack's restaurants, believes the restaurant industry's longtime practice of allowing sick workers to trade shifts with healthy ones works well without a mandated benefit.

"I think it would be very cost prohibitive to a lot, a lot of restaurants," he said.

The New Hampshire Women's Lobby is the chief advocate for passage. Executive Director Nikki Murphy points to studies showing employers save money by minimizing the spread of illness.

"If people go to work sick, of course, now you've got people in work sick even if they come in, they're not productive," she said.

Some committee members opposing the bill see value in paid sick days, but object to a mandate.

State Rep. William Infantine, a committee member, is an insurance agent who provides his seven employees with five paid sick days a year. Infantine opposes the bill because it would be a state mandate.

"I would hope that employers would do the right thing," said Infantine, R-Manchester.