Paid sick leave bill divided Bristol legislators [Bristol Press]

June 9, 2011

By Steve Collins
Bristol Press
Story as it appeared in the Bristol Press on June 8, 2011

BRISTOL — One of the most controversial measures in this year’s legislative session left Bristol lawmakers divided.

A first-in-the-nation bill to require many businesses to offer at least five days of paid sick leave annually drew support from two of the five legislators who represent Bristol in the General Assembly while the other three opposed it.

The measure passed the state House last weekend 76-65 and was previously approved by an 18-17 vote in the state Senate.

One of the measure’s backers, state Rep. Chris Wright, a Bristol Democrat, said he debated for a long while before making up his mind because “in difficult economic times we want to do all we can to encourage business to open in Connecticut.”

“At the same time,” Wright said, “we don’t want to compete in the race to the bottom, lowering wages, environmental standards and workplace safety rules to do this.“

In the end, though, he said he decided that “paid sick leave is a quality-of-life issue.”

For Republican state Rep. Whit Betts of Bristol, passage of the sick leave bill “sets a precedent for doing additional mandates in the future” that will crimp business even more.

“It will really hurt small business,” Betts said, while reinforcing Connecticut’s reputation as a place that’s unfriendly to business.

The measure only applies to employers with more than 50 workers who do not engage in manufacturing, which is exempt. There are other exceptions as well.

Betts said the fact the bill contained so many loopholes is proof in itself that it isn’t a good idea. He said if universal sick leave is needed, that’s what lawmakers would have mandated.

Wright said, however, that working in a hospital emergency room during a recent flu scare, he recognized how easily potentially deadly diseases can be spread, “especially in confined work environments and in the food and service industries.”

“Protecting my constituents from serious and potentially fatal contagious diseases is something that is very high on my priority list and this is why I voted yes,” Wright said.

“I also feel that the bill was narrowed with enough exceptions that it will lower the threat of illnesses like the flu without disrupting the economy,” he said.

Democratic state Rep. Frank Nicastro, a Bristol Democrat, was among the handful of Democrats to join the opposition to the measure while state Rep. Betty Boukus, a Plainville Democrat whose district includes a portion of Bristol, voted in favor of it.

State Sen. Jason Welch, a Bristol Republican, said the state is “bludgeoning our employers. This law will strike another blow to businesses in Connecticut.”

“During the paid sick leave debate, I showed my fellow senators a huge list of testimony from Connecticut employers who oppose this mandate,” Welch said. “One business owner said this law is going to push his company over the edge. Another said that because of this law, his company’s future growth will be outside Connecticut. Still another said this law will perpetuate underemployment.”

“Employers said, ‘Don’t do it.’ We did it anyway. Their pleas fell on deaf ears,” Welch said.