Sen. Joanne Benson: Where is the compassion, concern for neighbor?

Where is the compassion I ask?  Where is the concern for neighbor?

When we talk about paid sick leave, I do not understand how we can have the conversation in a vacuum without discussing compassion, fairness, and social justice.  We are talking about people and their families.

I remember the hearings we had when this piece of legislation was discussed.  I remember hearing talk about what business could handle.  I remember people talking about the cost in dollars.  What about the human cost? What about the cost for families – for parents, and their children?

As an educator and a compassionate person – I am convinced on this issue because I care about my neighbors and my constituents – and the over 700,000 Marylanders that this legislation could help.

During one of the hearings, I asked those opposed to this legislation how they would handle a situation in which a mother had no choice but to send a sick child to school because she could not take off work to care for a child.  It was in this moment that I articulated that I could not understand how compassion and concern for our neighbors could not be accounted for in the debate.  The financial devastation that is wrought upon families that are already living from paycheck to paycheck is unacceptable.  We cannot continue to call ourselves leaders if we fail to lead on the issues that matter.  So many of our neighbors are breaking their backs to be active participants in the American Dream.  The duty of a good legislator is to weigh all that we hear and then debate with an ethic of compassion.  At the end of the day, we are dealing with lives, real lives – people with flesh and blood.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “It may be true that morality can’t be legislated, but behavior can be regulated.”  While some of my colleagues believe that most business owners will provide sick leave on their own, I do not believe my constituents should be forced to operate under the compassion of those in the business of making a profit. Some asked in our debates why legislation was needed if some business owners were already providing sick leave. To this question, I answered then and I answer now that too many employers are more concerned with the bottom line than with compassionate care of their employees. In this reality, I believe the Maryland General Assembly was right to act and pass paid sick leave legislation. The Maryland General Assembly spoke and Governor Larry Hogan vetoed the legislation, though he knows the need to take care of medical issues and loved ones.

Fairness and compassion have a place in politics. Everyone gets sick but not everyone has time to get better. Tell me how that is fair, equitable, and compassionate? I have worked with parents, and I have seen the look of anguish on their faces when trying to figure out how to handle sick children when they are also sick.  We must remember that paid sick leave is about more than business and profit, paid sick leave is about healthy families and healthy environments. When we all do better, we all do better.

As the debate continues, I urge all at the table to consider their view through the lens of compassion. As the country clamors to movie theaters to take stock of the legacy of justice and compassion of Thurgood Marshall in the movie “Marshall”, I believe his voice is also powerfully present in this fight. Justice Marshall said, “None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps.  We got here because somebody… bent down and helped us pick up our boots.”

Who are we as Marylanders?  Are we going to show the compassion we hope someone would show to us, or are we going to slap away the hands of more than 700,000 Marylanders hoping we fight for their right to paid sick leave?  We are not talking about a luxury or a handout. Health care is a right! I am in this fight. Are you?