Employees get sick. This is a fact of life and business. But in Rhode Island, 41.5 percent of private-sector employees do not have access to paid sick time.
So, they risk losing their jobs when they fall ill, or are caring for children or elderly relatives who are sick. At the very least, they go without pay on the days they are absent.
Should all employers be required to provide pay for employee sick leave? More than 169,000 employees in Rhode Island are affected by the arguments that will play out again this year at the Statehouse.
In a bill resubmitted last month, Rep. Aaron Regunberg, D-Providence, proposes that employers provide at least seven paid sick days, which would be earned by employees at a rate of one hour of leave for every 30 hours worked, up to a maximum of 56 hours a year. A companion bill has been introduced in the Senate.
In an interview, Regunberg said his bill has been modified since it was first introduced in 2016, when it drew opposition from several business organizations. It now provides more flexibility to employers to define how the sick days are accumulated, and eases the documentation requirements, he said.
He frames the arguments in favor in economic terms. It costs employers money when they have to replace workers, and many employees will leave if they don't have access to sick time.
But beyond that, it's the right thing to do, Regunberg argues. "No one should have to choose between their health and their job. Right now, a lot of people do," he said.
Several New England states, including Massachusetts and Connecticut, have already made paid sick leave a requirement.
If approved, the Rhode Island requirement would be more generous than Massachusetts and Connecticut, whose law doesn't apply to the smallest employers. Both states require five paid sick days a year.
In January, Gov. Gina M. Raimondo said she wants Rhode Island to adopt a paid sick-leave requirement for employees, but she has not publicly said whether she supports the current legislation.
Opponents are already reaching out to legislators, and the governor's office.
The Rhode Island Hospitality Association, which represents more than 600 restaurants, hotels, inns and related businesses, is opposed. Its manager of governmental affairs, Sarah Bratko, called the legislation as currently drafted "the broadest and most far-reaching in the country."
The Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce also is opposed. The legislation has the potential to be a "massive overreach," said President Laurie White.
It unfairly intrudes on the employer-employee relationship, she said, and mandates a requirement for paid leave that many small businesses will have trouble meeting.
"In this instance, it's too far-reaching," she said, adding employer concerns are being shared with legislators and the governor's office. "I'm confident the concerns of small employers will be heard." •