Valley businesses prepare for state’s new earned sick time law which takes effect Wednesday



Last modified: Monday, July 20, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — Coming down with an illness often leads to a laundry list of expenses — visits to a doctor and medicine among them.

Missing a day of work, however, has often been the most expensive part of getting sick for many Massachusetts workers — one million of them to be exact. That’s the estimated number of employees who will gain access to sick time for the very first time when the state’s earned sick leave law takes effect Wednesday, according to the state attorney general’s office.

Beginning July 1, all Massachusetts employers will be legally required to allow full- and part-time employees to accrue sick leave — one hour for every 30 hours worked. Businesses with 11 or more employees will be required to pay workers their normal rate of pay during sick leave, while smaller businesses may offer the leave unpaid.

While the financial burden of taking a sick day often has been absorbed by workers, now many employers will be paying those costs instead. Across the Valley, businesses large and small are gearing up to comply with the new law, which allows workers to accrue up to 40 hours of paid sick time in a given year.

Tallying the cost

“Different businesses will have to do it in different ways,” said Rebecca Robbins, co-owner of the Woodstar Cafe at 60 Masonic St. in Northampton. “We will have to raise prices.”

The sandwich and coffee shop is staffed by 28 workers, with about half working full-time. If each of them were to take their earned sick leave, it would cost Robbins $14,000 each year. “That’s enormous,” she said.

Robbins estimates that she will often have to rely on full-time employees to fill an ill worker’s shift. With those workers already scheduled at 40 hours per week, they would receive overtime pay and the sick employee will be paid for a full shift.

“A $10-an-hour scenario becomes a $25-an-hour scenario,” she said.

In order to offset that cost, Robbins said she plans to cut her own earnings and raise prices. She said she had already planned a 4 percent price hike thanks to a winter of sky-high energy costs and the ever-rising price of food. The cost of sick time will be covered with an additional 2 percent price increase, she said.

“Eggs have doubled, gas has doubled, food costs in general are always going up,” she said.

While she expects some other businesses to cut corners and reduce the quality of their products rather than raise prices, Robbins said she will remain committed to buying local and organic food. And she hopes the often-progressive Valley residents understand her decision.

“Will they pay a little more, or will they bag their lunch and not stop by for a sandwich?” she asked.

Outsourcing payroll

While Robbins has already been using a third-party company to complete her payroll, the new law has prompted some business to outsource their payroll operations for the first time.

Katie Day, co-owner of Judie’s Restaurant at 51 North Pleasant Street in Amherst, said she has been calculating payroll herself for around 20 years.

After trying to make sense of the nuanced paid sick time law approved by voters in November, Day said she quit using the online accounting program QuickBooks for the restaurant’s payroll. “I decided it was time to let the pros handle it,” she said.

The cost burden for Judie’s of complying with the new law comes from hiring an outside firm, Day said. She hopes that the move means less time for her spent on ensuring compliance and more time running the business.

“If it doesn’t, I’m going to be very disappointed, because I’m spending so much more money,” she said, although she declined to specify the cost.

Donald Courtemanche, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, said an untrained person would likely be challenged in ensuring their company is in compliance with the law, which is why he expects that much of the burden will left to payroll companies such as ADP and Paychex.

Most chamber members are small businesses which do not have full-time human resource departments, Courtemanche added.

Favorable opinion

Though many business owners during a series of public meetings earlier this year called on Attorney General Maura Healey to delay implementation or significantly modify the earned sick time law, some employers are fully behind it.

“I’m actually for it,” said Jaimie Golec, general manager of Serio’s Market at 65 State St. in Northampton.

The grocery store and deli employs 22 people, most of whom work part-time. Though Golec said she and her father Gary Golec, who owns the store, are worried about the rising cost of everything, this is a case where values trump dollars and cents.

“You’ve got to put yourself on both sides of the fence,” she said. “If you were one of these employees, wouldn’t you want that sick time?”

Serio’s uses a payroll company to handle its bookkeeping. “That’s helped me figure out what I need to do to implement it,” Jaimie Golec said. “I don’t need to do the legwork, so to speak.”

Among the part-time workers at Serio’s is Aaron Andrews, 16, who said he’s glad his employer supports his rights. “It’s good to know that your own boss is on the same page as you,” he added.

The rising Northampton High School senior said he’s had to make the decision about whether to skip work when feeling under the weather. Andrews is glad that the new law eliminates having to make that choice. “Employees don’t have to go through that stress of losing money that day,” he said.

Already among benefits

Many businesses already offer paid sick leave as part of their benefits.

The law will have no effect on the 134 employees at River Valley Market, 330 North King Street in Northampton, nearly all of whom work full-time. The cooperatively owned supermarket has offered its employees 40 hours of sick time per year since opening in 2008, according to human resources manager Monica Nunez.

“We strive to offer the best benefits we can to our staff,” Nunez said. “Full-time employment is important and so is paid time off.”

Bob Lowry, owner of Bueno Y Sano, said he also is already offering paid sick time to the nearly 50 employees at his restaurants in Northampton, Amherst and West Springfield.

As for the new law, Lowry said he doesn’t have a strong opinion about it other than “I think that it’s useful to have standards for employment.”

Benefits to society

Eve Weinbaum, associate professor of sociology and director of the Labor Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said the law is a move in the right direction for workers, businesses and society as a whole.

“It’s a really important step for workers, and also for customers and people who interact with workers — which is all of us,” she said.

About one-third of workers in Massachusetts do not now have access to paid time off. The majority of them work in low-wage jobs, according to the attorney general’s office.

Ill employees without sick or vacation benefits are often left with a choice of whether to forgo a day’s wages and rest or tough it out and go to work, Weinbaum said. “Workers were getting fired for taking sick days,” she added.

And interacting with the public while sick means an increased risk of spreading disease.

“From the public’s perspective, it is a public health issue,” Weinbaum said. “You don’t want to be served in a restaurant by someone who has the flu who wasn’t able to take the day off.”

Massachusetts joins just two other states in the country, California and Connecticut, in guaranteeing workers paid sick leave. Weinbaum said the United States is far behind the times compared to other industrialized nations.

Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Ireland and the United Kingdom all guarantee workers some form of paid sick leave, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Weinbaum says that recent legislation setting a “baseline expectation” for sick leave and minimum wage will level the playing field for businesses, allowing them to remain competitive while ensuring fair treatment of their labor force.

“No business wants to be the only one giving their workers paid time off,” she said. “I think that does kind of push the culture in the right direction to say that everyone has to provide minimum rights for workers.”

Jon Weissman, coordinator of Western Mass Jobs with Justice, agrees that the moves are a step forward for labor rights, though he said more needs to be done to strengthen employers’ investment in long-term employment.

Since the 1970s, there has been an increasing trend of companies relying on low-wage positions with few or no benefits, which increases turnover rates, Weissman said.

Weissman said that there must be legislation that eliminates the threat of employers retaliating against their employees. Due to the at-will nature of much employment in the United States, a worker can be fired without reason. That means that an employee could potentially still be fired for taking a sick day, so long as the employer does not cite that as a reason for dismissal.

One solution would be to establish a grievance procedure — similar to those bargained by labor unions — that would ensure any firing of employees is with just cause, Weissman said.

“At that point you have a culture, you have a society, where employers value the long-term employee and maybe go the extra mile,” he said.

Meanwhile, Robbins, the co-owner of Woodstar Cafe, said while she supports the spirit of the law, she wishes it did more to recognize differences in the size of employers.

“A business like ours is different from Wal-Mart,” she said. “I think the small businesses got forgotten in all this.”

However, Robbins said she respects the democratic process used in adopting the measure, which supporters called the nation’s strongest paid sick time law.

“The people voted on it — there it is,” she said.

Chris Lindahl can be reached at clindahl@gazettenet.com.


 


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