RI Senate approves bill mandating paid sick leave

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — A proposal to mandate paid time off for workers who call in sick in Rhode Island is moving forward.

The state Senate voted 27-8 on Wednesday night to approve 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. It also would exclude certain classes of employees from the benefit, such as independent contractors and interns.

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 a version still being negotiated in the state House of Representatives. There’s just days left before both chambers of the Democratic-controlled Legislature plan to adjourn for the year.

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.”