People packed the Cross Office Building Jan. 14 to comment on Senate President Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell’s presentation of legislation that would guarantee Maine workers paid sick leave by allowing them to earn paid time off they can use when they are ill.

LD 1665: An Act to Prevent the Spread of H1N1, would require employers to provide a maximum of 52 accrued hours of paid sick leave per year to employees of large businesses and a maximum of 26 accrued paid sick-leave hours per year to employees of small businesses.

Sick leave is defined in the proposed bill as time away from the workplace when an employee is ill or needs to care for an ill family member; the employee’s business or a dependent’s school or place of care is closed due to a public health emergency; or an employee has to access preventive health care for themselves or a family member.

Mitchell was the first to provide testimony to the Legislature’s Committee on Labor at the public hearing. She urged workers who are ill to stay home and called for employers to send their sick workers home.

“Sick people will get better sooner at home,” she said. “We have created a bill that addresses small and large businesses.”

Rep. James Campbell Sr., U-Newfield, spoke passionately in favor of the paid sick days for the state’s working class. “If seniors go to a restaurant and there is a sick employee working, they are putting that senior at risk,” he said.

Laura Harper of the Maine Women’s Lobby said the sick days would not be available for fun and games, saying a section in the bill allowed employers to reprimand employees who abused the system. “It is a few hours working families can earn for their health,” said Harper.

Those in favor cited the study “Valuing Good Health in Maine: The Costs and Benefits of Paid Sick Days” by Dr. Kevin Miller. It asserts that Maine businesses could save nearly $37 million each year by granting paid sick leave because the leave would result in a healthier, more productive and stable work force.

Many, however, did not agree with paying employees when they needed to stay home because of illness.

“This is a small-business death,” said Steve Dimillo, manager at Dimillo’s Restaurant in Portland. “I can’t afford it. If this is enacted, I may have to lay people off and cut back on pay raises.”

Edward Hodgeton, representing Funtown/Splashtown in Saco, also opposed the plan because it would entitle younger employees who work 25 hours a week to paid sick days.

“There must be something done about seasonal employment,” he said. “They could take a week off at the end of summer, and there would be nothing we could do about it.”

“How can an employer prove the time is used as intended,” asked Bob Thing, director of operations at Hammond Lumber Company.

Others in opposition called the idea “ill-advised and irresponsible,” and said it would make more sense in prosperous times.

“It’s just another reason why this state is anti-business,” said Dimillo. “No other state in the country has laws like this.”

For more information about LD 1665, go online to mainelegislature.org/legis/bills/bills_124th/billpdfs/SP063001.pdf.