House Budget Debate Flares into Actual Debate, re: Delay of Earned Sick Time Law

Friday, May 1, 2015

Republicans in the Massachusetts House made a spirited attempt this week to delay implementation of a new earned sick time law through an amendment to the House version of the new state budget, but with only ten Democrats voting for the amendment, it didn’t have a chance.

Will advocates of delay, who include a well-respected Democratic state senator and the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the state’s premier business group, throw in the towel?  Or will they make another stab at postponement during upcoming Senate budget deliberations?

As we chin-rubbers like to say: time will tell.

The amendment in question would have delayed implementation of Chapter 505 of the Acts of 2014 for three months after the day on which the attorney general releases the final regulations spelling out how employers are to comply with the law.

Chapter 505 requires all businesses with 11 or more employees to give everyone 40 hours of paid sick time per year, and businesses with fewer than 11 employees to allow unpaid sick time of at least 40 hours.

In November, 2014, voters approved (59-41 percent) a statewide referendum mandating earned sick time across the board. The measure was subsequently codified in Chapter 505, with the stipulation the law take effect on July 1, 2015.  As is often the case, the law directed the attorney general to adopt rules and regulations necessary to carry out the purpose and provisions of the legislation.

Attorney General Maura Healey filed a draft set of Chapter 505 regulations with the office of the secretary of state on Friday, April 24, and announced a schedule of six public hearings where anyone may suggest changes to the regulations.  The hearings will be held at locations around the state, starting  May 18 and ending June 5.  Healey has said she will accept comments on the regulations through June 10 and expects to issue the final set sometime around the middle of June.  She has made it clear that, barring some new action by the legislature and governor, the law will go into effect on July 1.

It should be noted that, under the draft regulations, employees would begin to accrue sick time on the dates they were hired.

House Minority Leader Brad Jones of North Reading originally filed an amendment to the House budget that would have delayed implementation of Chapter 505 until January 1, 2016.  He subsequently changed the wording so as to delay implementation until “90 days following the promulgation and release of regulations by the office of the attorney general…”

Thus, if Jones’s amendment had been adopted in the House, and if a similar measure were adopted in the Senate, and if the governor were to approve that measure as part of the overall new budget, Chapter 505 would take effect sometime in mid-September, rather than on July 1.  We’re talking a two-and-a-half month delay here.

Just after 2:00 P.M. this Wednesday (April 29), Jones rose on the House floor to explain the amendment.  He said, in part, “Just this week the regulations came out in a draft form for a public comment that ends in June. So the regulations wouldn't be finalized until just days before this takes effect, so businesses will have only a matter of days to make changes to payroll and how they run their business.”

Jones emphasized, “This (amendment) does not seek any changes to the law made by voters. I'm sensitive to the fact that voters chose this law. But the regulatory framework is far behind, especially as this chamber has kept treble damages. I'll harken back to the tech tax and it took effect before the Department of Revenue even knew what it all meant."

[NOTE:  All statements by legislators quoted in this post have been excerpted from a State House News Service account of the proceedings in the House on the afternoon of April 29.]

Rep. John Scibak, a Democrat from South Hadley, spoke next.  “It's an interesting situation that we're in,” he said. “We had a referendum vote in November. The vote was clear. The gentleman (Jones) said we're not changing anything. In reality we are. Suspending this for 90 days means an employee can't accrue that sick time. It's true the regulations were released Friday. The attorney general is seeking feedback on the draft. We should let the process play out. We're looking at a change based on speculation. So we’re being asked to delay this without any hearing, any input, but just a feeling.”

In reply, Jones said, “I appreciate the comments of the gentleman from the west, but are they saying the draft regulations are a done deal and the public comment period is a ministerial fa├žade? That concerns me. It sounds like we don't care. We know what the regulations are. They came out last Friday. Look at the tech tax, done in a rush. We're not proposing one i or dot be changed. We just say let there be a 90- day period as there is with most laws we pass, so people know what the ground rules are. I don't think that's unreasonable.”

With the “tech tax,” Jones was referring to a controversial 6.24% sales tax on a range of computer and software services, which was passed by the legislature early in 2013 as part of a transportation infrastructure funding bill.  Once the business community realized the impacts the tax would have, it mobilized against the law in a way seldom seen in Massachusetts.  Many businesses threatened to leave the state if the law stayed on the books.  The legislature quickly repealed it, and the governor just as quickly signed the repeal into law.

Rep. Sheila Harrington, a Republican from Groton, said, “What we learned from the tech tax was that we found out we made a few mistakes and we repealed it. Let's make sure we don't have egg on our face three months after the law is implemented. I think the tech tax taught us a lesson. We don't know all the facts right now, and we may have a lot of problems with the implementation.”

Rep. Kenneth Gordon, a Democrat from Bedford, said, “This is a matter of carrying out the will of the ballot initiative. And we're talking about calculating dates, here.  In 90 days, there are people who will get sick. The balance is important to take into account. People who are getting sick are relying on this.”

Rep. Shauna O'Connell, a Republican from Taunton, said, “I think it's interesting that there is talk of not ignoring the will of the voters, but that certainly did happen when voters decided to roll back the income tax to 5 percent. That was supposed to be a temporary tax. Now we're not going to give the business community a break. This does a great injustice to the small business communities, to people who are self-employed. Ninety days is perfectly reasonable.”

Rep. Denise Provost, a Democrat from Somerville, said, “…the analogy to the tech tax is not a good one at all. There is no ambiguity in the parameters of the sick leave law. It was clear on the ballot.
Whereas (with) the tech tax, it was never clear what the entity was that was going to be taxed, and that's why some of us voted against it.”

Rep. Byron Rushing, a Democrat from Boston, said, “I want to speak against this amendment because we do this process all the time and it is unusual that when we have laws passed by the people directly - and when was it passed? It was passed in November. In November businesses could begin thinking, What are the problems they need to solve to carry out this law in July?

“I don't know how many businesses belong to associations, but I do know that most of the organizations spent tons of money mailing me. They are out there working to change laws all the time. Most of the businesses in this state have sources. They have help in what they are asking for, changes in the preliminary regulations. If they are given another three months they will come to us at the beginning of the fall saying delay it again.

“Let us let the process go. Look at the preliminary regulations and give all the opinions they wish to give. Let's see what those permanent regulations are. If the attorney general is not having hearings, or it is a setup process like the minority leader suggested, then let us come back here. We're not going anywhere. We have a lot of work to do. But let us not assume that the system is not going to work. I think the system's going to work and I think we have time if, in some strange happening, the system falls apart and we come to the end of May and it looks like no one knows what they're doing.”

At Jones’s request, there was a roll call vote on the amendment, meaning every member in the House chamber at that time was recorded in favor or opposed.  This differed from the quick voice votes on which most budget amendments are decided in the legislature.

Forty-five representatives were recorded in favor of the Jones amendment and 114 were in opposition.  One member of the House, Edward Coppinger, a Democrat from Boston, was absent at the time.

Of the 160 members of the House, 35 are Republicans.

Of the 125 Democrats in the House, 10 voted in favor of the Jones amendment.  Those 10 are:

Bruce Ayers of Quincy, Thomas Calter of Kingston, Josh Cutler of Duxbury, Stephen  DiNatale of Fitchburg, James Dwyer of Woburn, Colleen Garry of Dracut, William Pignatelli of Lee, Dennis Rosa of Leominster, Walter Timilty of Milton, and Jonathan Zlotnik of Gardner.



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