The Maryland Senate on Wednesday advanced legislation to delay a policy entitling part-time workers to paid sick leave until July, setting up a showdown with the House of Delegates over one of the biggest policy initiatives of the legislature's current term.
Businesses are on the hook to begin tracking the paid time off part-time workers can earn starting Sunday, under a timeline set in motion when Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the legislation last spring and the legislature voted to override him last month.
Some lawmakers and business advocates say employers won't be prepared for that — and regulators say rules to guide compliance won't be ready until after the legislative session ends in April. But delegates who shepherded the policy through years of legislative battles say they still aren't interested in delaying the policy any further.
On the Senate floor Wednesday after the 28-16 vote to give the bill to delay the policy preliminary approval, Sen. Thomas "Mac" Middleton, the Finance Committee chairman who sponsored the legislation, urged his colleagues to pressure their counterparts in the lower chamber to act.
"We need to encourage the House to take this bill up," the Southern Maryland Democrat said. "We've worked real hard to get it right and we need to get it right all the way."
Del. Dereck Davis, chairman of the House's Economic Matters Committee, on Wednesday repeated his stance that delegates are not interested in revisiting any debate over paid sick leave.
"It's been debated ad nauseam already," the Prince George's County Democrat said.
The sick leave law applies to companies with at least 15 employees, entitling their part-time workers to one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked, as many as five paid days off per year. Proponents say about 700,000 Marylanders would benefit.
When the legislature passed the law last April, it appeared businesses would have eight months to prepare any new tracking or payroll systems before the law became effective Jan. 1. But Hogan vetoed it last May, placing the measure in limbo until a narrow Senate vote last month to override him. Under the state constitution, a vetoed bill becomes law 30 days after any successful override by the General Assembly.
Ahead of the looming effective date, Middleton had originally proposed pushing the policy off by 60 days. Pressed by business groups to give employers more time than that, the Finance Committee amended the bill to delay it until July 1. The Senate vote Wednesday adopted that amendment.
The delay legislation still needs final Senate approval, expected Thursday, before it can move to the House. (An aide to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said it's still possible for the legislature to change the sick leave policy's effective date even after Sunday passes.)
But after the preliminary vote, senators' attention nonetheless shifted to whether the House of Delegates will consider the bill.
Middleton said he is holding out hope they will follow senators' lead, and be encouraged by the fact that opponents to the underlying sick leave policy in the Senate did not try to reopen debate on its details.
"I think what we've done here today should be an example," he said. "I think we've shown that if you can bring a bill to the floor, everyone's not going to try to use it as a vehicle to get all the amendments on it."
Miller said he was voting in favor of the bill to delay because, in passing the legislation, lawmakers had committed to "try to correct the bill as best when can." But he said he didn't expect it to become law.
"In keeping our commitments, we're just saying if we can make it better, we will," Miller said. "We know where the bill's going to go in the House, but that's not a factor."
Baltimore Sen. Joan Carter Conway had weighed amending the bill so that workers could begin accruing time off starting Feb. 11, but that enforcement of businesses' adherence to the policy would not begin until July 1. But she said she decided against it because she felt it wasn't worth debating if the House isn't going to act.
Middleton predicted that if the House favored such an amendment, the Senate would pass it "in a heartbeat."
While the delay legislation faces a tough road to passage, some lawmakers — including Republicans who oppose the way the sick leave policy was written — are looking ahead to a proposal pushed by Hogan to offer tax incentives to small businesses that provide paid sick leave.
Davis said his committee would take a close look at the proposal, which also offers tax credits to small businesses that offer low-income employees child care benefits, transportation benefits, health saving accounts and education benefits. A hearing on that bill is scheduled for later this month.
"We'll definitely take another look at that and see if there's something we can do for working families," he said.
Labor Secretary Kelly M. Schulz said that the administration's proposal isn't just about defraying the cost of sick leave benefits for small businesses, but also as a way to help working families and single parents "who have a higher barrier to work."
As an unusually severe flu season hits Maryland and much of the nation, at least three senators were absent from Wednesday's debate because of illness, Sen. Richard Madaleno, a Montgomery County Democrat, noted as he voted against the delay.
"It's interesting that these people are out sick today and we're debating whether or not people should have that opportunity to stay at home and not be at work," he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.