HELENA (UM Legislative News Service) -- The House Business and Labor Committee heard testimony Wednesday on legislation that would set a statewide minimum for paid sick days for employees. Under House Bill 386, all workers in Montana would be entitled to five days of paid leave per year. 

Rep. SJ Howell, D-Missoula, is the sponsor of House Bill 386. They said paid time off in Montana is understudied but the picture is likely to follow the national trend.

According to a September 2022 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 86 percent of full-time American employees had access to paid sick leave. BLS stats show that a smaller percentage of low-wage earners have access to paid sick leave than higher-wage earners. 

“Everyone gets sick sometimes or has a sick kid or a sick parent to care for, but not everyone has the time to get better or care for a loved one. In fact, thousands of Montanans right now face a pretty difficult choice when they get sick. Do they stay home and risk their economic security or even their job security? Or do they go to work and risk their health and the health of their coworkers in their communities?” Howell said. 

The bill would apply to any business with at least 10 employees. Employees would be able to make one additional hour of paid time off per every 40 hours worked and then accrue that paid time off up to 80 hours per year. Unused paid time off up to an amount of 80 hours would be able to be carried over to the next year. The bill would apply to full-time and part-time employees equally. 

The bill would also provide protections against any employer retaliation for taking sick days. The bill would exclude any employees who are in a collective bargaining agreement and would not require businesses already meeting the minimum requirement to raise the amount of sick leave they give.

There were seven proponents of the bill, who said people working paycheck to paycheck or in the service industry are often hit the hardest by missing work. Amanda Frickle, who represented the AFL-CIO, said even missing an hour of work can have serious consequences on some workers’ ability to make a living. 

“Higher wage earners -- taking an unpaid sick day may result in negligible financial income. But for a low wage worker, late taking a mere hour off of work could mean a substantial hit to the weekly grocery budget. Two days of unpaid sick leave could be equivalent to a month's worth of gas, and three days unpaid leave could translate to the family's monthly budget for utilities,” Frickle said. 

The two opponents of the bill said that decisions over benefits such as paid sick leave should be left to the free market, and businesses use these benefits to incentivize workers to stay at their jobs. They also said the bill could have negative effects on small businesses. Dave Galt represented the Montana Chamber of Commerce and opposed the bill.

“We recognize the employee issues going on in Montana, but we believe that this is a decision left to the marketplace and left to the employers and their small businesses,” Galt said. 

The committee did not take immediate action on the bill.