Mary D. Kane is a proven leader in state, federal and global organizations and joined the Maryland Chamber of Commerce as President & CEO in October 2021. In her role, she focuses on continuing to move the Chamber forward as the leading voice for businesses in Maryland. Kane has an extensive background in leading state, federal and global organizations, most recently at the U.S. State Department as Director of the National Museum of American Diplomacy.
This op-ed was originally published by The Capital Gazette on February 04, 2022.
A bill in the spotlight this legislative session would provide paid family leave. We have taken a strong stance against it, but I want to make an important point clear to the community: The Maryland Chamber of Commerce is not opposed to the concept of an insurance program that provides benefits when employees need to take otherwise unpaid time off for their own or their family’s medical issues. We understand it can be necessary to take time for medical issues or to be with your loved ones when they are in need, and we empathize with the economic challenges brought about by unpaid leave. Our opposition to this bill is not in principle, but in practice. The proposal before the General Assembly is not the right bill nor is this the right time.
Why isn’t it the right bill? Because it provides paid leave — a vastly expanded sick leave bank — instead of insurance benefits. Under the current bill, employees can receive up to 24 weeks of paid leave— 12 weeks for family reasons and 12 weeks for their own needs. But the state makes all the decisions about the leave without any input from the employer. Only the state can obtain certification to support the employee’s application for paid leave benefits. Only the state can approve the leave. The employer has no ability to verify the need for leave, to challenge leave as fraudulent or abusive, or to take into account the impact of the leave on business operations.
There are a number of other states that have implemented similar programs. Unlike the current bill being debated in Maryland, a number of these programs are clear that they provide benefits when an employee takes unpaid leave to which they are entitled under the law or by employer policy. And employees in Maryland do have rights to unpaid leave for family and medical reasons, including under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, the Maryland Parental Leave Act, the Maryland Organ Donation Leave law, the Maryland Deployment Leave law, the Maryland Pregnancy Accommodations law, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the state disabilities law. And of course, under the Maryland Healthy Working Families Act, employees are already entitled to up to 40 hours of paid sick leave.
However, each of these laws provides some balance between the needs of employees and those of employers. Under all of these laws, the employer has the ability to obtain medical or other verification of the need for leave. The employer also has the ability to obtain additional information if fraud or abuse is suspected. In addition, in most cases, the employer has the ability to deny the leave if it would impose an undue hardship or significantly interfere with business operations — which could certainly be the case if an employee were out for up to 24 weeks. Under current labor conditions the concern over leave management is even more present as many businesses struggle to find enough workers to keep their operations afloat.
And why is this not the right time? Many employers, particularly small businesses, have been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill stipulates that the program will be funded by payroll contributions from both employers and employees. This is a cost that many employers simply cannot afford at this time. Moreover, even before the pandemic, many smaller employers were already struggling with the increased costs of doing business in Maryland following the recent increases in the minimum wage and the enactment of the paid sick leave law. Other states that have implemented similar paid family leave laws include an exemption or adjustment to the contribution costs for smaller employers. This bill does not.
The Maryland Chamber of Commerce is committed to working with the General Assembly to put together a program that better balances the needs of both employees and employers — specifically by clarifying that the program will provide insurance benefits to cover an employee’s unpaid leave, but not paid leave itself. We know a common-sense solution is in reach if both sides can come to the table and work together toward a resolution.
The full Senate will vote on this legislation the week of March 14th. Take action now and tell your Senators to oppose SB 275 HERE.
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