Nicole Woo remembers working part-time jobs as a waitress and bartender, and how she was more likely to work while sick because she couldn’t afford to take a day off.

Now she’s an advocate at the nonprofit Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, working to convince lawmakers to pass a bill requiring employers to provide paid sick leave.

House and Senate lawmakers are negotiating a final version of  House Bill 4, along with House Bill 213, that would expand the state’s unpaid family leave law. But neither proponents or opponents are happy about the latest drafts of either bill.

HB 4 would allow workers to accrue up to five days of sick leave each year. There’s an exception for smaller companies and those that have more generous policies.

HB 213 would allow employees at large companies to take four weeks of unpaid leave to take care of sick siblings or after the death of a close family member. The current law lets workers take off time to care for sick children, spouses and parents.

Diners enjoy sunset at a restaurant on Waikiki Beach. A group representing local restaurants says the sick leave bill will make it harder to do business in Hawaii. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Deborah Zysman, executive director of the Hawaii Children’s Action Network, said HB 4 started out strong, but has been watered down so much that if it passes, Hawaii could have the weakest mandatory sick leave law in the nation.

On the other hand, the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce and the Hawaii Restaurants Association have been raising alarms about how even the weaker versions of the bill could harm the ability for small businesses to make a profit.

David Schell, the general manager for Island Princess Macadamia, submitted written testimony saying mandating that the company provide sick leave to its 60 employees would be damaging.

“This notion is ludicrous,” wrote Schell. “It penalizes those who remain healthy and come to work.

Both the sick leave and the family leave proposals will be heard in negotiating committees on Wednesday, but until then, advocates and opponents are being kept in the dark as legislators work on the bills behind closed doors. Lawmakers are in the midst of conference committee, a period at the end of the session when they no longer hear public testimony on bills and work out the details among themselves.

“We just have to wait,” said Catherine Betts, who leads the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women and has been advocating for paid sick leave and family leave. She commented that “conference is just not the most transparent way of doing government.”
“It’s very confusing that a lot of things have been blanked out,” said Lauren Zirbel, a lobbyist for the Hawaii Food Industry Association. “So we’re not really sure what is happening.”

Weakening The Sick Leave Bill

When House Rep. Roy Takumi introduced HB 4, he sought to give workers the right to sick leave after working for 80 hours. They could start taking sick days on the 19th day of their employment.

Both the House and Senate amended the bill and the latest version said workers must complete 680 hours before they have a right to sick leave. That’s the equivalent of 17 weeks, or more than four months.

The drafts that passed the House and Senate said workers wouldn’t be able to use the sick leave until they finished 750 hours of work, or the equivalent of nearly 19 weeks.

House members at Capitol. 11 april 2017
The House convenes in April. Lawmakers are reviewing hundreds of bills and will be making key decisions this week. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The original draft of HB 4 was stronger. It provided workers with one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours worked, or at total of seven days each year, for all workers.

The versions eventually passed by the House and Senate said that workers accrue one hour of sick leave for every 40 hours worked, five days each year, unless the employer provides a higher limit.

Those drafts also exempted employers that have a relatively small number of workers or pay their workers a certain amount higher than minimum wage, without specifying how many employees or how far above minimum wage.

The amended versions also stripped a provision that described how the sick leave law would be enforced.

Betts said that she’s concerned by efforts to narrow the law’s applicability. “If the true goal of this bill is to protect public health then the minimum wage provision really doesn’t have a place in public policy,” she said.

Zysman is worried that putting a weak law on the books will lessen lawmakers’ incentive to pass a stronger bill next year.

“I think those blanks are what have everyone a little on edge,” she said.

Woo from the Appleseed Center, which advocates on behalf of low-income people, said that she’s worried the bill will do little to help people working multiple part-time jobs who might take many months to reach the 750-hour mark.

She’s also concerned that if the state sets a low standard for sick leave, employers could actually worsen their current sick leave policies in response.

Concerns About Family Leave

Advocates have similar concerns about Rep. Aaron Johanson’s bill, HB 213, to expand the state’s unpaid family leave law. That measure would allow workers in companies with more than 100 employees to take four weeks off without pay to care for a sibling with a serious illness or following the death of a close family member.

Under current law, workers are allowed four weeks of family leave for the birth or adoption of a child, or to care for a sick child, spouse or parent.

That proposal didn’t receive as much critical testimony as the sick leave bill

Still, Zirbel from the Hawaii Food Industry Association said that the bill would raise costs for grocers.

“Please keep in mind that profit margins are already quite sparse for grocers, which generally operate at a profit margin of around one percent,” she wrote in testimony. “Hawaii’s food prices can be up to seventy percent more than the national average and any additional costs will drive up grocery prices, punish low-income consumers and burden businesses.”

Restaurant employees would get paid sick leave under a bill that’s being considered by the Legislature. Creative Commons via Flickr

As with the sick leave bill, advocates of expanding family leave say that the bill doesn’t go far enough.

Zysman said the standard for family leave in many other states is a minimum of 12 weeks off with partial pay, with the percentage of pay decreasing as your income goes up.

Betts said that her office has been using a federal grant to study the issue and is expected to come up with recommendations by September. Like Zysman, she doesn’t think Johanson’s bill is strong enough, since it doesn’t include paid maternity and paternity leave.

“I think the question is in reality how many people can this actually protect,” she said. “I mean really, in Hawaii how many people can take unpaid leave? But I think it’s a step in the right direction.”

She said whether or not the bill passes, she expects to be back at the Legislature next year to advocate for the recommendations expected to emerge from her office’s analysis.

Why Businesses Are Worried

But many business owners believe the existing proposals already go too far.

The General Contractors Association of Hawaii testified the proposals would add a new layer of complexity to existing employee benefits, while other business lobbyists argued the bills shouldn’t apply to part-time workers.

The bottom line for business opponents is how these measures would increase the cost of doing business in Hawaii, which is already a very expensive place to operate. A variety of industries from construction to credit unions are opposed to expanded sick and family leave.

Dirk Koeppenkastrop, the owner of Il Gelato, which has 45 employees and has been hoping to expand, said that the bill would drive up the cost of gelato.

“With the proposed bill and ongoing increasing minimum wage our gelato cost would go to up to $4.50,” he said. “Would you buy a scoop of gelato for $4.50? We cannot increase our scoop prices, as we would lose our local customers.”

But advocates for paid sick leave and family leave point to studies showing such policies improve employee loyalty and productivity.

“It’s a long time overdue but I’m hopeful that Hawaii can prove it’s a progressive state for families,” Betts said.

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