BOSTON — Sara Dudley has no choice but to clean houses when she’s sick. Dudley, 32, works for a contractor who doesn’t offer sick pay, and she can’t afford to lose a day’s wages, she said.
“Nobody likes going to work with a cold, but what can you do? The bills aren’t going to pay themselves,” said Dudley, of Middleton, who balances house-cleaning with taking online business courses and caring for her 6-year-old son.
Dudley is among an estimated 1 million workers for whom labor groups and others are pressing for state-mandated paid sick leave. Roughly one-third of the state’s private sector workforce doesn’t have sick leave benefits, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
A coalition of unions, advocacy groups and religious leaders are expected to start collecting signatures this weekend to put a sick-leave referendum on the November ballot.
Their measure would force companies with more than 10 employees to offer two weeks of paid sick leave, while companies with less than 10 employees would have to provide two weeks of unpaid time.
Workers won’t be able to claim sick days until after the first 90 days of employment, and unused time couldn’t be rolled over into the next year.
Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said small business owners are struggling to afford state-mandated health care for employees, workers compensation and unemployment insurance. Mandated sick pay would only add to their financial burden, he said.
“Employers need to have the flexibility to do what is right for them and their workers. They don’t need government to dictate what those policies should be,” he said. “If we continue to do that, our main streets are eventually going to go dark.”
Hurst said powerful labor groups, including the AFL-CIO and Service Employees International Union, are using Massachusetts as a testing ground for mandated sick leave and similar initiatives, including efforts to raise the minimum wage.
“They figure Massachusetts is their best shot for getting this approved,” he said. “This would be a first-in-the-nation mandate.”
The sick-leave petition drive begins after lawmakers failed to act on sick time legislation by a Wednesday deadline. If supporters collect 10,800 signatures by June 18, as those on both sides of the issue expect, the question will go to voters.
“We’ve been pushing this issue on Beacon Hill for years, and it’s never really gotten anywhere,” said Steve Crawford, a spokesman for advocacy group Raise Up Massachusetts, which is organizing the ballot measure and a referendum to raise the state’s minimum wage. “This time we’re going to the voters.”
Crawford said big business interests are driving opposition to mandatory sick leave benefits.
He noted that people in Massachusetts are proud to claim the mantle of being among the first states to adopt universal healthcare. “But if you can’t get off work to go to the doctor or pick up your sick child at school, is that really universal access?” he said.
Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said business owners are most concerned with a provision that would allow workers to take sick leave for a few hours at a time. “In the retail world, that’s totally unmanageable,” he said.
Restaurant owners who offer paid sick leave say most employees don’t use the benefit — or end up abusing it, said Luz.
“Most people don’t use sick days when they’re sick, they bank them and try to use them as vacation days,” he said.
Erin Calvo-Bacci, owner of The Chocolate Truffle, employs less than 10 workers at her store in Reading and a small manufacturing facility in Swampscott. She provides paid sick days to employees who work more than 20 hours a week on a case-by-case basis. She said she worries that mandating sick leave would lead to abuses in the workplace and a loss of productivity.
“We’re a small company, and if someone calls in sick, I have to scramble to backfill that position. In most cases, that’s me,” she said. “When we have orders to be filled people don’t want to hear, ‘I couldn’t do it because someone was sick.’ It ends up costing me.”
Supporters of mandated sick leave say their hopes are buoyed by success elsewhere. New York City, for example, became the latest municipality to make businesses pay sick workers in April. Cities such as San Francisco, Seattle, Newark, N.J. and Portland, Ore., have also adopted local laws on sick pay.
So far, Connecticut has the only statewide requirement. The law, approved two years ago, allows workers up to five paid sick days a year if they work at a business with at least 50 employees.
Still, business groups have fought back with their own proposals including legislation that has passed in 11 states — Florida, Arizona, North Carolina and Wisconsin among them — that prohibits communities from enacting paid sick leave ordinances.
According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, 39 percent of American workers get no paid leave. The ratio more than doubles in the lowest-paid tenth of the workforce.
The federal Family and Medical Leave Act allows up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year for an employee to recoup from a health condition or care for a loved one. But the law covers only workers at companies with 50 or more employees.
Labor groups are also trying to get a referendum on the November ballot to raise the state’s minimum wage from $8 to $11 an hour. Lawmakers in the House and Senate are also weighing increases to the minimum wage, but it’s unclear whether anything will be approved before the end of session on July 31.
A sick pay campaign is expected to draw big money from both sides. “A lot of eyes will be watching what happens with this referendum,” Hurst said.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse. He can be reached at email@example.com