OCEAN CITY, Md. — Although a successful bill requiring the expansion of employee paid time off was halted by Gov. Larry Hogan in May, the potential for an override of his veto spurred Ocean City business advocates to pre-emptive action.

The Ocean City Greater Chamber of Commerce hosted a conference this week to explain House Bill 1, known as the Maryland Healthy Working Families Act.

The bill would, with certain exceptions, require all businesses to provide paid sick leave to employees, including J-1 visa holders, working 12 or more hours per week. The bill also included “safe leave,” which are absences by employees in response to domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking.

After vetoing the bill, Hogan issued a release that called the bill “poorly written and deeply flawed,” that would “jeopardize the economic progress Maryland has made” under his administration.

“We cannot afford to turn back to the failed job-killing policies of the past,” Hogan said at the time.

In a Tuesday email, a spokeswoman for Hogan said he supports common-sense paid sick leave.

“The governor is committed to working with legislators, small business owners, workers, and advocates on a common sense, bipartisan, balanced plan that provides paid leave benefits to hardworking Marylanders without hurting our small business job creators,” spokeswoman Hannah Marr said.

“Fortunately, House Bill 1 was not slated to take effect until January, which means there is still time to get this right and compromise on a better bill.”

The bill had passed 29-18 in April, largely along party lines, with Democrats voting in its favor, but an override of the governor’s veto is possible at the beginning of the 2018 legislative session in January.

Local opponents of the bill are concerned it would negatively impact seasonal businesses in particular, who could find themselves understaffed toward the end of the summer as seasonal employees use their accrued hours. They also foresee a financial burden involved in complying with the proposed regulations.

As general manager of Ripley’s Believe it or Not, a strictly seasonal business, Brandon Ely believes the bill is “well-intended,” but he foresees an inevitable outcome that will take money out of his enterprise’s coffers.

“Our typical workers are young and just here for the summer, coming down to rent a house for the summer and make money,” he said. “To them, if they see an easy way out, they’ll take it.

“They’ll go out for the weekend, then take two or three days off out of my pocket,” he said.

Lawrence Richardson, vice president of government affairs with the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, said the bill is a “one-size-fits-all mandate” that fails to accommodate the variety of businesses in the area.

“We’ve got small businesses that are going to be impacted, and we have large businesses that currently give generous leave policies but don’t meet the exact requirements of the bill that they will have to modify,” he said, urging attendees at Tuesday’s conference to reach out to state senators and push them to start or continue opposing the bill.

One major concern, especially to seasonal businesses, is that employees would begin using accrued leave after 106 days of employment under the bill, a length of time employers say would often still be in the busy season.

“The argument given for 106 days was that it’s Memorial Day to Labor Day, but that isn’t Ocean City,” Richardson said. “You’re starting (business) mid-May through the end of September, well outside that 106-day stipulation.”

Richardson also cited vagaries in the details of the bill he says lead to unanswered questions; questions which likely wouldn’t be answered until a regulatory agency specified them following its adoption.

“If this bill were to come into law as it is right now, among the questions that consistently surface surround qualified employees having to regularly work 12 hours or more,” he said. “What’s ‘regularly?'”

He cited workers at Freeman Stage, who only work when there’s a concert, or employees at Shorebirds Stadium who are on the clock only during home games.

“Are they working regularly? We don’t know, and we won’t know until an entity, likely (the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation), sits and drafts regulations to interpret the bill,” he said.

It’s that uncertainty, coupled with the possibility that the bill could become law as soon as one month after the January legislative session begins (assuming the veto is overridden), that is making businesses nervous.

Sen. Jim Mathias was among the 29 senators who voted for the bill in April. He said his efforts helped expand the initial 90-day employment requisite to 106 days — which fell short of the 120 days he’d aimed for — but he is as yet undecided about whether he will vote to override the governor’s veto.

“Respectfully, I haven’t made that decision,” he said. “I’ve spoken to the governor about the bill several times and offered a willingness to work and compromise.”

Ocean City Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Melanie Pursel said should the veto be overridden and the bill take effect, she would like to see the 106-day employment requisite expanded to 120 days, as well as lighter sanctions for noncompliance.

Those penalties can range to up to three times the value of the employee’s hourly wage and a civil penalty of $1,000 per employee for whom the employer is noncompliant.

“If you were to be in noncompliance, even if it were unintentional, the damages can be astronomical and really paralyze a small business,” she said. “And all of that could be initiated by one employee claiming they weren’t given leave.

“The sanctions are very severe, and we’d ask them to be made more reasonable.”


Information from: The Daily Times of Salisbury, Md., http://www.delmarvanow.com/