Lawmakers Consider Imposing New Sick Leave Requirements on Massachusetts Employers

Via a bill that is supported by Governor Deval Patrick and was recently reported favorably by a legislative committee, Massachusetts lawmakers are deciding whether to require employers to offer sick leave benefits to their workers. While most employers voluntarily permit workers to be out sick for reasonable periods, the benefit is not mandatory and employees can be fired for using it. The so-called Act Establishing Earned Paid Sick Time would set a new sick leave floor and, as the name suggests, require that most employees be paid during their absences. It would grant job protection to workers and expand the benefits they already must receive under Massachusetts law.

While the bill is opposed by many business leaders, it may be gathering steam in the legislature. After years of considering the sick leave issue, lawmakers appear ready to at least seriously consider adopting a bill in one form or another. The most recent iteration provides for mandatory accrual of one hour of sick time for every 30 hours of work, to a maximum of 56 hours annually for businesses with 11 or more employees and 40 hours for smaller companies. Business with 6 or more workers would be required to pay employees for the time off. The bill would bar all businesses from imposing any negative consequence for the use of sick time, whether in termination or other situations, and impose the same stiff penalties for violations as apply in wage cases. That means employers and their decision-makers who violate the sick leave law would face mandatory triple damage awards and the requirement that they reimburse workers for costs and legal fees incurred during a lawsuit.

The current bill might, however, contain something of a loophole, at least for employers who already provide paid vacation benefits.  The sick leave bill would not require duplication of such benefits, as long as vacation or related time off can be used for the same purposes as the proposed law requires. The bill is now being considered by a joint commitee of the House of Represenatives and State Senate. It has 50 or more co-sponsors and is supported by a coalition that recently organized a rally to press for its passage. The bill would permit the use of sick leave benefits for an employee’s own health issues or that of his/her family members. Sick leave would also be available for routine medical examinations and to deal with the effects of domestic violence. Employers wold be permitted to require verification after 24 consecutive hours of sick time are used by a worker.