Paid sick days debate heats up; senator, restaurateur argue

By MATT O'BRIEN Markets Associated Press

Line chefs and waiters who help power the state's food industry are at odds with their employers on a proposal that would require businesses to provide paid days off when workers call in sick.

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In a small state proud of its waterfront seafood shacks and crowded urban eateries, the debate has led to competing claims over whether a sick leave mandate would help or hurt the local economy.

The debate took a surprisingly heated turn this week when state police investigated a profanity-laced email sent to the bill's main proponent, Democratic state Sen. Maryellen Goodwin, warning that small businesses were "extremely close to violent opposition" over the proposal.

The seafood restaurant owner whose email address was used to send the message denied sending it Wednesday.

"That was an old Gmail account that has been hacked," said Kevin Durfee, owner of George's of Galilee in Narragansett.

Police who met with him quickly dropped the case, saying the email's content didn't rise to the level of criminal charges.

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Goodwin said she didn't believe Durfee's public denial and was told by police to expect an apology from him, but the controversy only emboldened her and other sick leave proponents who ushered a compromise version through a Senate panel Wednesday evening.

Goodwin has been negotiating with worker advocates and business groups over a mandate similar to what's been adopted in seven other states and in cities including New York and Minneapolis.

"If people are allowed to call out when they're sick, that's going to prevent the spread of disease," said Casey Sardo, who caught a stomach bug while working at an upscale sports bar two years ago but went back to work anyway.

The 21-year-old said she got two co-workers sick and probably some customers, too. She was paying for college and couldn't afford not to show up.

Advocates say few of the state's estimated 40,000 restaurant workers have access to paid sick days. A total of about 170,000 workers in the state don't have sick days, comprising about 40 percent of the private sector workforce.

The Senate Labor Committee voted 7-1 on Wednesday to approve a newly unveiled compromise version. The original legislation would have required employers to provide workers up to seven paid sick days to care for their own health or a family member's. The compromise version covers just four days starting next year and five days starting in 2019, which is similar to what's required of employers in neighboring Massachusetts.

The compromise also follows the Massachusetts model in exempting small businesses with 10 or fewer employees and excluding certain classes of workers, such as independent contractors and interns.

Rhode Island business advocates have opposed the legislation, saying it would harm employers, including those that already offer paid sick leave but would have to conform to new procedures for tracking hours. Business groups successfully fought to scale it back but remained opposed after seeing the revisions Wednesday.

"The carve-out for small employers we were looking for was 50," which would resemble Connecticut's sick leave law, said Elizabeth Suever, a lobbyist for the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce. "This only goes to 11, so I'm very concerned it doesn't go far enough."

Goodwin said proponents "heard their concerns, and I believe we addressed an overwhelming amount of their concerns."

Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo has called earned sick time a priority this year, making it likely she will sign a bill into law if it gets to her desk. Debate over changes is likely to continue as the compromise version moves to a vote in both chambers of the Democratic-controlled legislature, all before lawmakers are scheduled to adjourn for the year next week.

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The story has been corrected to show that a Senate labor committee, not judiciary committee, approved the measure.