Employers Miss Out On Sick Leave Reforms

Jul 10, 2013

When Connecticut passed a law two years ago that required employers to provide paid sick leave it was the first state in the nation to do so. And so putting that law into practice has been something of an experiment. This year, businesses asked for some changes to make the law easier to comply with. But as WNPR's Harriet Jones reports, they didn't get them.

When you hear the sound of sirens in one of Eastern Connecticut's towns, it's a fair bet that the vehicle involved belongs to American Ambulance Service, based in Norwich.


"It's a family owned business, started back in 1972. We started off with 2 used ambulances, now we're up to 29 ambulances and we serve 22 communities in Eastern Connecticut."


Gregory Allard is a Vice President at American. This company with 180 employees -- the vast majority EMTs and paramedics -- was already providing paid sick leave to its employees before the 2011 law. But when the law came in, it still had to implement changes. For one, in order to comply with the state statute, it had to administer sick leave on a calendar year, instead of a fiscal year basis.


"We had to change all of our systems, our computer software, so it was real challenge for us to do that."


For another, it has to now grant sick leave in one hour increments - say for a driver to go to a doctor's appointment - instead of requiring that workers take a whole day off.


"To have those paramedics and EMTs request an hour in the middle of their shift when they need to be available to transport somebody from a hospital to a nursing home, or nursing home to a hospital on an emergency setting would make it very challenging for us to stop the entire vehicle, pull the vehicle back to the base for them to be able to leave and then come back again, it just was a major disruption in service."


So even for a company that was already providing paid sick leave, the new law has been a headache. Allard says he understands the provisions were not meant to cause problems - but some of them did.


"I think it was probably an oversight, and I don't think it was something that was intentional -- I think they were trying to do what they thought was right."


American Ambulance is not alone in struggling to comply with the law, and Heidi Lane has the evidence. She's an attorney at the state Department of Labor and she fields employer inquiries about new statutes.


"At the beginning it was almost like implementing the paid sick leave law was our full time job."


She and Allard were both looking forward to passage this most recent legislative session of what was described as technical legislation - a bill that would make small changes to the sick leave law to make it easier for employers to comply. As the bill was originally drafted, Lane says it contained common sense compromises and welcome clarifications.


"Some of those changes probably would have stopped some of the phone calls coming in, because we still get dozens and dozens of phone calls."


The bill would have allowed companies to administer sick leave on any calendar, it would have strengthened the language that exempts manufacturers, and it would have made it simpler to determine which businesses have the fifty employees that trigger liability under the law. Trouble was, the legislation didn't pass.


"I didn't see it as controversial, I thought of it as being a rather straightforward technical change."


State Senator Gary LeBeau helped to pass the 2011 sick leave bill, and he also sponsored this fixer legislation which originated in the commerce committee. But as the bill made its way through the legislative process, changes were made and LeBeau ran into opposition from people who said he was trying to roll back the original law.


"We weren't trying to cut back on anybody's sick leave, we were trying to make it more user-friendly in essence."


Principal among the objectors, the Working Families Party of Connecticut. Political Director Kennard Ray says he didn't raise objections to the original bill, but as amendments were added his concerns grew.


"Anything that rolls back the rights of workers we will oppose. If anything we want to expand the bill, not reduce those who are covered."


And in his view, some the technical fixes in the bill would have done just that -- reduced the number of employers who were covered and the number of employees who could access paid sick leave. The bill in its final form would have reduced coverage for part time employees, and it would have allowed companies to report their employee numbers just once a year.


"What that would have done is basically gave companies a holiday to just say, hey we only have 49 employees during this week, and there's no other checks and balances throughout the year."


As much as she wanted the legislation, Heidi Lane too at the Department of Labor saw issues with the final bill. For instance that provision that American Ambulance lobbied for, allowing them to tell their drivers they couldn't take just one paid hour off at a time. The bill said if an employer has reason to believe that would be impracticable for a worker to come back after a short break, the company had the right to ask an employee to take a full day.


"How are we going to determine what a reasonable belief is by the employer. The law didn't give us any guidance, and who's to say what's impracticable or not?"


Its supporters saw this bill as an opportunity for the legislature to clarify and improve one of the most controversial laws they've passed in recent years and help the state's employers in the process. But its failure to pass just serves to highlight that one person's technical change can be another person's erosion of rights.