(March 1, 2019) In reaction to the passage of statewide mandated paid sick leave last year, Ocean City business owners and tourism industry representatives headed to Annapolis last Thursday to testify in support of legislation seeking relief for seasonal employers.
Sen. Mary Beth Carozza is the primary sponsor of Senate Bill 681, which would extend the waiting period for employees to use earned paid sick leave to 120-days. The Senate Finance Committee held a first hearing for the legislation on Feb. 21.
The Maryland Healthy Working Families Act went into effect last February, after the General Assembly overrode a previous veto from Gov. Larry Hogan in May 2017.
During her testimony last week, Carozza said SB 681 seeks to amend the paid sick leave bill by increasing the number of days on the job, which was originally set at 90, before earned sick leave can be taken.
“This committee had the wisdom to pass a seasonal exemption of 106 days [but] we found that did not recognize the shoulder season,” she said. “The current exemption has hurt our job creators because it decreases the number of jobs that can be offered to our young people and J-1 students.”
Although the 120-window was a proposed amendment to HB 1 during the 2017 General Assembly session, a 106-day compromise was reached after a contracted legislative battle.
Sen. Stephen Hershey Jr. (D-36, Kent/Queen Anne’s/Cecil and Caroline) noted that HB 1 — Maryland Healthy Working Families Act — was hotly contested two-years ago.
“We settled on 106 days to cover Memorial Day to Labor Day,” he said. “Now we’re being told that is not ample time.”
Carozza said the peak tourism period has stretched from the traditional benchmarks in recent years.
“It starts earlier and goes later,” she said.
Carozza said SB 681 would also reduce the period of time for re-hired employees to have unused earned sick leave reinstated from 37 weeks to 32 weeks.
“The paid sick leave policy… was never intended for summer jobs and seasonal workers,” she said.
Voicing concerns shared by numerous resort business operators was Anna Dolle Bushnell, whose family opened Dolle’s Candyland on the Boardwalk and Wicomico Street in 1910.
“We’re a fifth-generation candy business,” she said.
Due to seasonality, Dolle’s year-round staff of 25 employees is bolstered by 35 summer workers, many of whom took advantage of the sick leave benefits once enacted.
“What I found, as humorous as it is, but the beach is very tempting,” she said. “We found that the 106 days, when they see on their paystub that they have earned a full day of work they’ll call out.”
The labor cost becomes two-fold, as now both the worker using sick time and whoever covers the vacated shift are paid, Dolle Bushnell said.
Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce President & CEO Melanie Pursel, said extending the exemption period for using earned paid sick leave is critical for resort businesses, with employee benefit abuses being reported this past summer
“Unfortunately, when these young people and seasonal workers are owed this leave they take it,” she said. “We see consistent abuse of this policy.”
Susan Jones, Executive Director of the Ocean City Hotel Motel Restaurant Association, said the 106-day period miscalculated the time seasonal businesses require to avoid taking a financial hit from a glut of excused, and paid, staff absences.
“Our season goes from Springfest, which is the first weekend in May, until Sunfest, which is the third weekend in September,” she said.
Ocean City employs about 12,000 seasonal workers annually, and most of these hires are young first-time employees, Jones said.
“We are helping to create jobs that these teenagers can have a starting point,” she said.
Extreme staffing demands prove challenging for many resort businesses, with about a third of the seasonal workforce sourced from J-1 International Summer Work Travel Students, Jones said.
“We don’t have enough people that we can fill these positions [because] we simply don’t have the population,” she said.
Among the voices opposing the proposed revisions was Sally Dworak-Fisher, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, who was also a member of the Working Matters Coalition, which had lobbied for mandated paid sick leave in Maryland for several years prior to the law’s enactment.
“We worked for six years to pass the Healthy Working Families act with compromises and amendments,” she said.
Dworak-Fisher said prior attempts to exclude seasonal workers by increasing the number of days to 120 were repeatedly rejected by both the Finance Committee and the General Assembly.
“The bill that was passed after six years of compromise represents our best efforts and now is not the time to reopen it,” she said.
Caryn York, Job Opportunity Task Force executive director and also a co-founding member of the Working Matters Coalition, also offered opposition perspective and said HB 1 was thoroughly discussed, debated and deliberated for a half-dozen years.
“On both sides, Democrats and Republicans articulated and confirmed that, yes, workers should have access to this right,” she said. “Now we are back to exempt our most vulnerable.”