Senate passes sick leave bill, business leaders remain dubious

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A scaled-back version of a bill to mandate paid sick leave in Rhode Island was approved by the Senate by a vote of 27-8 Wednesday evening, but the bill could still see further changes as the House is scheduled to take it up in the next couple of days.

“It’s a great day for workers in Rhode Island,” said Sen. Maryellen Goodwin, D-Providence, the majority whip and sponsor of the bill.

Her original proposal would have required all employers to provide up to seven days of paid sick leave to workers, but the bill was changed last week in the Senate Labor Committee in an attempt to appease business leaders. The revised bill requires employers to let their workers accrue up to four sick days next year and five annually after that, and it exempts very small businesses with eleven or fewer employees.

Still, some business leaders say the curtailed mandate does not go far enough to address their concerns.

“Our concern with the Senate version of the paid sick leave bill is that it doesn’t provide enough protection for small businesses,” said Elizabeth Suever of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce. “It doesn’t give them a true carveout and will subject them to the cost and the onerous administrative burden of this bill.”

The current “carveout” would exempt employers with 11 or fewer employees from providing paid sick leave. But the bill still requires them to provide unpaid leave and prohibits the employer from retaliating against a worker that takes a sick day.

Sen. Leonidas Raptakis, a Coventry Democrat who joined five Republicans and two other Democrats in voting against the bill, is one of those very small business owners. He owns Venus Pizza in Coventry, where he says he has “four or five” employees.

“What are we doing?” Raptakis asked in an interview with Eyewitness News after the vote. “Government is going to tell us how to operate small business? This is the United States of America.”

Raptakis introduced an amendment on the floor to raise the exemption for the mandate to businesses with 50 or fewer employees. The amendment was defeated 32-3.

“I’m talking about your corner bakeries, your corner laundromats, your corner hardware store,” Raptakis said.

The bill will now be considered by the House, where Rep. Aaron Regunberg, D-Providence, has been working on his own version of the legislation with House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who has repeatedly said he wants to see a compromise with business leaders.

Suever said there are ways the House can make the measure more palatable. “What we were seeking is 50 employees because that’s an established small business metric in labor law,” she said.

But Goodwin dismissed that idea. “No, we are not interested in 50,” she said, arguing it “would essentially gut the meaning of the bill.”

If the House makes changes to the bill, the Senate would have to approve it again. Goodwin said she is willing to compromise in other ways and discuss whatever changes are made on the House side.

The House Labor Committee is scheduled to vote on the bill Thursday afternoon.

Suever also expressed concerns about what she called the Goodwin bill’s broad definition of a family member. Like most paid sick leave bills in other states, the proposal would allow workers to use their accrued sick time to take care of a family member. The Senate version did narrow the definition to immediate family like parents, children or grandparents, but also included “care recipients.”

The bill would include both full-time and part-time employees, although part-timers would likely receive fewer days, since the bill allows workers to accrue one hour of sick time per 30 hours worked.

Seasonal workers would have to wait 120 days before they could start accruing sick time.

Georgia Hollister Isman, director of Rhode Island Working Families and one of the primary advocates for paid sick leave, praised the passage of the compromise Wednesday night. She pointed out that the bill brings Rhode Island in line with Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont in offering the benefit.

“Workers may forego medical care or risk financial instability when illness causes them to miss work,” Hollister Isman said in a statement. “Workers in Rhode Island also lack protection from discipline or dismissal for short-term absences due to illness or domestic violence.”

Gov. Gina Raimondo has expressed support for the bill, and told reporters Wednesday she hoped a compromise would be reached and the bill will be sent to her desk. She called for the new mandate in her State of the State address in January.

“I’m asking the legislature to send me a sick leave bill,” she said. “Massachusetts has it. It’s consistent with everything else I’m trying to do – raising the minimum wage, raising home-care worker wages, level the playing field. Folks deserve a few days off.”