By Michael Norton and Mike Deehan
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- Organizers behind two proposed ballot laws convinced the Legislature to act on one, but took steps Monday to lock in a slot on the Nov. 4 ballot for the other measure that they say would enable one million workers in Massachusetts to earn sick time benefits.
The Legislature and Gov. Deval Patrick this month agreed to a law raising the $8 an hour minimum wage to $11 in three, annual steps, but the sick time proposal died in committee without surfacing for votes in either chamber.
On Monday, members of the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition rallied outside the State House and then marched to the state elections division where they delivered a final round of signatures they said will ensure them ballot access and a chance to put a sick time law on the books without the Legislature being involved.
Emily Rodriguez, a personal care attendant, said it's not fair for some health care workers to possibly put their patients at risk of infection by working while sick.
"We care for them, so somebody needs to care for us. We should have at least, you know, those days that we can stay home, make sure we're okay for us to be able to care for other people," Rodriguez said before the rally.
>>> For publishable photos from the demonstration, go to: http://www.statehousenews.com/gsp/default.aspx?aid=1975 <<<
Sen. Dan Wolf, co-chair of the Labor and Workforce Development Committee, which endorsed the earned sick time proposal, said he was confident that voters would adopt the measure and said he did not sense an appetite in the Legislature this year to approve both the minimum wage hike and the sick time proposal.
Harris Gruman, SEIU state council political director, led the crowd in chants of ,"When we fight, we win," and tied the proposal to the labor movement's efforts over the years to raise job and wage standards.
While celebrating steps toward the ballot, activists are bracing for a battle, and Gruman cautioned attendees to be ready to hear "a lot of negative stuff" from opponents of the idea.
Deb Fastino, the co-chair of the group, said many of the jobs the initiative would affect are at "big box" retail and national chain employers like Wal-Mart, KFC, McDonalds, CVS and Rite-Aid.
Under the proposal, workers at companies with 11 or more employees would earn up to 40 hours of paid sick time to visit the doctor or care for a sick family member while workers at companies with 10 or fewer employees would earn up to 40 hours of unpaid sick time.
The rally was originally planned for last Thursday, when it would have conflicted with the ceremony where Gov. Patrick signed the bill raising the minimum wage to $11 an hour over the next three years.
Asked if she would have preferred a law written by lawmakers or the ballot question, Fastino said, "It would have been nice to work with them and get the language we have for the ballot passed into law through the Legislature, but since we did not and it didn't really even move we gotta do what we gotta do and we're happy to do it."
National Federation of Independent Business State Director William Vernon predicted the question's approval would cause the loss of jobs in Massachusetts.
In an interview, Vernon said businesses in the service and retail sectors will be more affected by the measure than others. In some of those sectors, employers need to be sure they are staffed up at all times, he said.
"You have to replace the person. The remaining people cannot pick up the slack," he said. "In a small business it's even more difficult." In some companies, one person represents a significant percentage of the workforce, he said, and hiring replacements means, "You're really paying two people to do one job."
Vernon said the bill is too prescriptive, and amounts to state government "telling small business how to run their business, what benefits to provide and how to provide them."
"There are a lot of workers out there who would prefer to have more robust health insurance benefits, longer vacation time and other benefits rather than sick leave," Vernon said. "It goes to exactly how that dollar, that compensation dollar, is split up."