March 19, 2012 | last updated April 21, 2012 10:34 pm

Sick-Leave Mandate Stirs Ill Wind | State proposal irritates local business owners

A bill before the state Legislature that would mandate sick leave has owners of some local small businesses scratching their heads — or left them downright annoyed.

The latest version of the measure would require businesses with six employees or less to offer up to 40 hours of unpaid time off. per year. Companies with up to 10 workers would have to offer up to 40 hours of paid sick leave a year, and businesses with 10 or more employees would be required to offer up to 56 hours..

The legislation would ban employers from firing workers for using earned sick time, and prevent them from requiring additional shifts of employees who have been out sick. Employees out sick for more than three days in a row could have to provide certification — such as a doctor's note — if the employer requests it.

The National Federation of Independent Business, which opposes the bill, estimates that out of a statewide workforce of almost 3 million, 1.3 million do not get paid sick days. The NFIB said in a statement that, over five years, 12,000 jobs could be lost as a result of the proposed sick time mandate.

Supporters — like Gov. Deval Patrick — believe paid sick time is a basic right that will reduce the spread of contagious illnesses and ensure more people keep their jobs. "Paid sick days is a commonsense measure that will help get our economy moving again by making sure hardworking men and women can hold onto their jobs, support their families and sustain local businesses," Elizabeth Toulan, coordinator of the Massachusetts Paid Sick Leave Coalition, said in a statement.

But Adam Haddad, owner of Accurate Collision in Worcester, is not a fan.

"You always hate being told what to do in your own business," he said.

However, if the bill should pass, it wouldn't affect operations at Haddad's nine-person shop much anyway. He already offers his full-timers paid sick time. "I offer five days; I don't want to be mandated to give it," he said. Haddad said he has five or six employees who haven't been sick in years.

It isn't like just anyone can fill in for someone who's out sick, anyway, in a business like his, he said. "If they're putting a car back together and they don't come in the next day? It's like taking a thousand-piece puzzle and taking it apart and putting it back together again." If everyone took a week of sick time, it would translate into higher rental car fees for his company, delays in getting repairs completed on time, aggravation for customers and possible damage to his reputation, he said.

But what the measure would definitely take from Haddad is a hiring edge.

"Sometimes the small things separate us in hiring," he said. For Haddad, offering sick time is something he does to lure the best help he can get for his team. A mandate would mean everyone would have to offer sick time, meaning the benefit wouldn't provide a competitive advantage when it's time to hire someone.

For Damon Pender, CFO of Littleton-based TeraDiode, a laser manufacturer with about 25 employees, mandated paid sick days complicate matters, and make management more complex than it needs to be. "I guess I question whether or not (the mandate is) necessary," he said.

TeraDiode provides employees with five personal days, not sick days. And he doesn't really care how people use them, he said. "I don't like the idea of using sick days; it's giving people opportunity to fabricate," he said.

But with this legislation, Pender said, sick days would be "treated like vacation," and if people have them, they'll tend to use them.

Local Support

Worcester-based nonprofit Neighbor to Neighbor, an economic and social justice group, disagrees with that assessment.

"According to the most recent study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most employees on average use four out of seven sick days," Wilnelia Rivera, Neighbor to Neighbor policy and political director, said in an email. "With nearly 11,000 low-income members statewide, of which over 4,000 reside in Worcester, we understand the personal and economic impact this issue has in their everyday lives.".

The Massachusetts Paid Leave Coalition maintains mandatory sick leave would save the state money by cutting health care costs from contagious diseases — like the flu — as well as stressed workers, and keep low-wage workers off public assistance. Lower employee turnover and less lost productivity due to illness would save Massachusetts businesses $348 million annually, it said in a statement. The bill also addresses "reducing on-the-job injuries directly caused by 'presenteeism,' a phenomenon that describes employees who work while sick," the coalition said.

"When I was younger, my mom didn't have any sick days," said Neighbor to Neighbor volunteer Abby O'Leary of Worcester, a college student. "My mom went in for hip replacement and my job wouldn't allow me to take off to help … take care of my younger sister," she said. "I had threats of 'We will fire you,' and I couldn't afford to lose my job."

(Material from State House News Service in Boston was used in this report.)

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