- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 28, 2017

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - A proposal to mandate paid time off for workers who call in sick is moving ahead in the Rhode Island General Assembly, but business groups are making a last-ditch lobbying effort to pare down the plan.

The state Senate voted 27-8 on Wednesday night to pass legislation that would require private sector employers to provide their workers with up to four paid sick days starting next year and up to five days starting in 2019.

It would exempt small employers with 10 or fewer employees from having to provide paid sick leave. It also would exclude certain classes of employees from the benefit, such as independent contractors and interns.

The bill will now go to the state House of Representatives, where Rep. Aaron Regunberg, a Providence Democrat, is sponsoring companion legislation.

Paid sick leave advocates say nearly 170,000 workers in Rhode Island, comprising about 40 percent of the workforce, don’t have access to paid sick days. They say it helps low-income workers who can’t afford time off, and also helps prevent the spread of disease, especially in the restaurant and hospitality industry. Providing up to five days a year, a traditional work week, would match similar sick leave mandates in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont.

Rhode Island business groups, which already were successful in scaling back the Senate bill, are fighting for more concessions in the version still being negotiated in the state House. There’s just days left before both chambers of the Democratic-controlled Legislature plan to adjourn for the year.

Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo said Wednesday that she wants the legislature to send her a bill providing for paid sick days because people deserve to take time off if they’re sick or need to care for a loved one. She said the bill must not place undue burdens on companies that already have good paid time off policies and must provide appropriate exceptions for the smallest companies.

Raimondo said she couldn’t say whether the Senate bill accomplishes those objectives because she hasn’t reviewed the details.

House Labor Committee Chairman Robert Craven, a North Kingstown Democrat, said Tuesday his committee is considering amendments that would exempt more small businesses.

“There’ll be some differences” from the Senate bill, Craven said. “The number of days would be the same. The difference would be to whom it applies.”

Craven said the exemption could be “significantly higher” than the 11-employee minimum in the Senate bill, but he declined to specify how high. Massachusetts exempts employers with 10 or fewer workers, while Connecticut’s cap is 50 workers.

Craven’s House panel could move the bill to a full House vote as early as Wednesday or Thursday.

Business owner Donald Nokes, president of Cranston-based information technology consulting firm NetCenergy, said he’s opposed to any sick leave mandate because he doesn’t “understand why the government has to feel like they have to get involved in crafting our benefits package for our employees.”

Nokes said he offers a generous benefits package “that’s designed for an IT staff. They’re a bunch of young healthy guys. They don’t care about sick time.” He added that he does keep employees on the payroll when they’re sick, including for long-term illnesses, but budgeting for everyone taking the full time off they’re allowed under the proposed mandate would be a problem for his 42-employee business.

“Nobody wants to leave a benefit on the table so if that’s how you offer it, they’re going to use it,” he said.

Paid sick leave advocates dispute arguments that the benefit would be abused, saying that hasn’t happened in the other states that guarantee sick days off.

“The evidence is very clear that people use fewer sick days than they have and they treat it like an insurance policy,” said Georgia Hollister Isman, director of Rhode Island Working Families, which has been leading the fight to pass the bill. “They know everyone gets sick. You can get sick at any time. So they save it for those times.”

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