By Mike Deehan
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- The organizers behind the ballot question to grant workers in Massachusetts earned sick time are taking aim at gubernatorial candidate Charles Baker for opposing the measure, while the Baker camp says the candidate stands by his statements about the question's potential impacts.
In a statement to the News Service, the Yes on Question 4 coalition on Monday called on Baker to retract what they called a false statement about the ballot measure potentially eliminating "flex time" programs currently offered by many employers. "Charlie Baker is either confused about what's included in the ballot question or he is being deliberately misleading," said coalition co-chair Deb Fastino.
In a statement to the News Service last week, Baker said he has "spoken with some employers who are concerned that this mandate would eliminate their existing benefit programs, such as flex time, which are valued by working parents, especially mothers."
Baker believes "all employers should provide some sort of sick leave time to their full time employees, and it is encouraging that most do. I think we can and should be more creative than just a one-size fits all mandate."
The front-running Republican candidate for governor recommended working with employers and labor to achieve more earned sick time without a government mandate and retaining businesses flexibility.
Baker spokesman Timothy Buckley said Monday that Baker was referring to benefit programs that may be affected by a change in law, such as flexible leave programs that pool holiday, sick and personal time off.
Under a typical "flex time" scenario, employers allow employees to work non-traditional hours while still accomplishing the same total number of hours or completing the same amount of work. A "flex leave" policy allows employees to use vacation, personal or sick time to deal with illness.
Bill Rennie, vice president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, told the News Service Monday that it's difficult to say if a new earned sick time law would cause employers to change their existing policies or eliminate certain benefits.
Businesses may shift over to new programs in order to comply with the law and abandon programs they already have, Rennie said. "That's what the danger is in trying to fit this one-size-fits-all mandatory approach," Rennie said. Businesses could incur costs when implementing the changes, he said.
According to Secretary of State William Galvin's office, Question 4 would "entitle employees in Massachusetts to earn and use sick time according to certain conditions." Employers with 11 or more employees could earn up to 40 hours of paid time off for illness per year, with workers at smaller companies earning the same amount of unpaid time. Sick time could be used to care for themselves, a sick child, spouse, parent, or parent of a spouse and to attend medical appointments. Workers would earn one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked.
"Question 4 specifies that employers who offer equal or better benefit plans can keep those policies," wrote Fastino, alleging that "Baker is flat out wrong" about the ballot question.
According to the summary of the ballot measure on Galvin's website the "proposed law would not override employers' obligations under any contract or benefit plan with more generous provisions than those in the proposed law. Employers that have their own policies providing as much paid time off, usable for the same purposes and under the same conditions, as the proposed law would not be required to provide additional paid sick time."
In a blog post from September 2013 on legislation that preceded the ballot initiative process, Associated Industries of Massachusetts Executive Vice President John Regan wrote that AIM Vice President of Government Affairs Bradley MacDougall told lawmakers the proposed mandate "would eliminate popular benefits such as paid time off, which combines all paid time off (vacation holidays, sick time, and personal time) into one 'bank' of days that can be managed and used by the employee for any purpose without reporting the specific reason."
Treasurer Steven Grossman's campaign for governor distributed a press release Saturday in which Grossman said Baker "views earned sick time as a tough political issue."
"Charlie's failure to take a strong progressive position and stand with working families today is deeply disappointing. Again and again, he continues to dodge the critical issues facing our state," Grossman said in the statement.
Attorney General Martha Coakley said Baker's "opposition to earned sick time shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the difficulties faced by working families, especially working mothers. If corporate CEOs don't have to choose between caring for a sick child or parent and losing their job, then neither should working families."
Coakley said she supports earned sick time for every worker.
Democratic candidate Donald Berwick said in a statement that he supports the measure because he says it will improve the economy, increase productivity and decrease turnover. "Massachusetts should be the best place in the country to be a worker, and earned sick time is a step in the right direction," Berwick wrote.
Mark Fisher, Baker's opponent in the Republican primary race, also opposes the measure and said in a statement it is best left to the free market.
"As with the minimum wage increase I believe that earned sick time is an issue best left between employees, employers and the Free Market. To attract and keep employees, employers offer wages and benefits. An employer which does not keep pace with innovative or cutting edge employers will lose employees. As a result, wages and benefits will naturally move to common levels within common labor markets," Fisher said.
Independent candidate Jeff McCormick told the News Service last week that he opposes the ballot question.
"At a time when we already have high taxes, high health care costs, and our economy is struggling, I believe we need to focus our efforts on growing small businesses and not creating another unfunded mandate that may further jeopardize their ability to survive," he said in a statement.
Independent candidate Evan Falchuk told the News Service he will vote in favor of the measure despite some concerns. Falchuk called the language "a blunt instrument for dealing with a fairly complex issue" and said the Legislature should have dealt with the issue before it came to the ballot.
While they approved a bill pushed by the coalition to raise the minimum wage, the Democrat-controlled Legislature opted not to take up the earned sick time initiative petition, which never surfaced for votes in the House or Senate. Sen. Edward Markey and Mass. AFL-CIO chief Steven Tolman are among the petition's ten original signers.