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The Connecticut Senate narrowly passed legislation Wednesday requiring businesses to offer employees paid sick time, moving the state closer to becoming the first in the nation to impose the mandate.
The 18-17 vote followed six hours of debate and marks a major victory for unions and their allies who have pushed for the legislation for years. Businesses have vigorously fought the measure, calling it a job-killer.
The measure now heads to the state House of Representatives. If it passes there, Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has promised to sign it into law, buoying backers of the bill who believe they will ultimately prevail.
Malloy's Republican predecessor, Gov. M. Jodi Rell, had threatened to veto the bill, helping to kill the measure in previous years.
Beginning Jan. 1, if the law is enacted, businesses with more than 50 workers would allow employees to begin accruing one hour of sick leave for each 40 hours worked.
Sen. Edith Prague, the Senate's chief sponsor, said the vote was among her biggest victories in her 25 years in the legislature.
"I'm going to savor the moment," she said.
Representatives of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association vowed to continue their fight against the measure in the House.
Joseph Brennan, the organization's lobbyist, said that as other states remove obstacles to business growth, Connecticut is "taking out the hammers and the nails" and putting up barriers.
In a statement, Malloy said the legislation is a "reasonable compromise that represents good public policy."
He had said the measure was intended to protect public health, singling out workers who serve food, care for children and work in hospitals.
Brennan dismissed that argument.
"They make it sound like there's a pandemic out there," he said. "I want to underscore how terrible this vote is for Connecticut. We've done nothing to create jobs in Connecticut."
Prague kicked off debate defending the bill as a public health measure.
"The purpose of this bill is to allow people to take a paid sick day if they're sick, if a child is sick, if a spouse is sick," she said.
Sen. John McKinney, the Senate's Republican leader, said the measure would make Connecticut less competitive in attracting businesses.
"If you don't think other states aren't going to eat our lunch when we pass these mandates, you're fooling yourselves," he said.
Minority Republicans, still smarting over a budget enacted by the Democratic-led legislature and Malloy that increases a range of taxes to close a deficit, said the paid sick leave bill is another example of state government's hostility toward business.
Employers and their allies also argue that requiring paid sick days hinders an employer's ability to provide a flexible array of benefits, such as a mix of vacation and personal days that also may be used by employees when they are sick. They also criticize the timing of the proposed mandate as the economy struggles through a weak recovery.
Jennifer Morgan, a co-owner of East Coast Lightning Equipment in Winsted, said at a manufacturers gathering at the Capitol that businesses can come up with their own sick leave policy without prodding by the legislature.
"I don't need the state to tell me I'm not offering nice benefits," she said.
Her company, which makes lightning protection components, offers employees two weeks' paid vacation a year and a third week that workers can use for vacations or sick leave, she said. If they use their vacation days and require sick time, it is unpaid, Morgan said.
"It's a choice they made," she said.
Vicki Shabo, director of work and family programs at the National Partnership for Women and Families in Washington, D.C., said the "most exciting and prominent action" on behalf of paid sick leave is at the municipal level, with San Francisco and Washington, D.C., requiring the benefit.
The lack of support in state Legislatures is "very surprising to us because it's commonsense legislation that helps workers, helps families and helps communities," she said.
A federal paid sick leave measure also has been repeatedly introduced in Congress since 2004, said Kaelan Richards, spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a sponsor of the measure.
McKinney mocked what he said is negligible support for paid sick leave around the country.
"It's telling that only San Francisco and Washington, D.C., are doing this," he said. "Forty-nine other states know this is bad for business."