Although thousands of Marylanders received COVID-19 vaccines in the battle against the novel coronavirus pandemic, frontline medical workers, grocery store clerks and other essential workers face high levels of exposure.
That’s why Sen. Malcolm Augustine (D-District 47) of Cheverly sponsors legislation for employers to provide hazard pay at $3 per hour for those workers with annual salaries of less than $100,000.
“They don’t have the ability to sit at home in front of a computer and collect a paycheck,” he said. “We literally depend on them to survive.”
A hearing before the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday, Feb. 11 lasted about an hour and 50 minutes hearing testimony from Attorney General Brian Frosh among more than a dozen people.
“This bill will protect workers who are risking their lives to protect us,” he said. “Workers who are Black and brown and those who live paycheck to paycheck are overrepresented among essential workers [and] overrepresented among victims of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not enough has been done to protect them.”
The bill, called the “Maryland Essential Workers’ Protection Act,” would also provide essential workers with free personal protective equipment, 14 days of paid health leave and three days of bereavement leave to cover leave taken in the event of the death of a family member.
The paid health leave proposed would be in addition to paid sick leave.
Some workers don’t earn enough money to accrue sick leave “and can’t afford to take time off,” Frosh said.
According to the legislation, some of the employees covered in different fields such as an internet service provider (communications sector), court reporters (government sector) and airline worker (transportation systems sector).
The legislation notes that during a state of emergency, a health emergency preparedness plan should be enacted to allow changes in work hours, teleworking capabilities and any sanitation procedures.
An employee can refuse to work if they believe conditions are unsafe based on state and federal health safety standards, according to the legislation.
An employer must also pay for any testing “for a contagious illness or disease” if an employee’s health insurance doesn’t cover the cost.
A company that doesn’t provide worker protection would receive a financial penalty up to $1,000.
The fiscal and policy note from the state Department of Legislative Services highlights the bill would cost $241,000 to implement this fiscal year and jump to $647,500 in fiscal year 2022. The department’s analysis states the small business impact as “meaningful.”
Sen. Stephen Hershey, a Republican who represents parts of the Eastern Shore, voices opposition to the measure, insisting said the 76 “sub-industries” like automotive and energy covered in the bill are too widely varied to be effectively addressed in a single law.
“I would go to look at a farm and would look at the conditions of a farm that would put them in the same position as other categories that are here,” he said. “That is a problem with a one-size-fits-all pieces of legislation. The ideas are ok…but not be so broad that it would be impossible to implement.”
Ashley Duckman, vice president of governmental affairs for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, echoed that view and said the bill presents “many unintended consequences” for both employers and employees.
“The requirements and associated costs in the bill would be devastating for our job creators who are already struggling to overcome a global pandemic,” she said. “I can’t identify a member who really doesn’t put the health and safety of their employees and the general public as the top priority…in an environment that is constantly evolving, is filled with incomplete or inconsistent information and changes rapidly.”
Augustine, a former Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board member, offered a personal reflection on the bill after a chat with his aunt.
“I was telling her about the provisions and the protections. She stopped me cold. ‘Malcom, most people just don’t care,’” he said. “That absolutely broke my heart. All I could say to my Aunt Pat is that I care.”