States Lead Push for Paid Sick Days

By: - February 13, 2008 12:00 am

With this year’s flu epidemic in full swing, nearly half of all U.S. workers who fall ill or have sick kids must decide whether to stay home and lose wages or go to work sick and expose others, a choice many say no one should have to make.

Advocates for making paid sick days a basic labor standard say the United States should follow all other developed countries and require businesses to let ill or injured employees miss work without docking their pay or threatening their employment. But businesses argue such a requirement could drive some companies out of business.

Now that Congress has hiked the minimum wage and most states have given workers an even bigger pay raise, sick pay has emerged in national political campaigns as the top issue affecting wage earners. But states aren’t waiting for Congress to make the first move.

Come Election Day in Ohio, voters in the all-important presidential swing state may weigh in on the issue if an effort by its supporters ends up on the ballot.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in 11 states and the District of Columbia are expected to consider proposed legislation that would require employers to allow workers to miss a certain number of work days each year to recover from an illness or care for an ailing family member – without a reprimand or lost wages.

U.S. businesses voluntarily provide sick days for about half of all workers. But for the other half – about 59 million workers – missing work because of the flu or a minor injury means lost wages and sometimes a reprimand or dismissal. As a result, many workers show up sick, often spreading illnesses to others, according to Kate Kahn, policy analyst with the National Partnership for Women & Families , which advocates for paid sick days. In addition, they send their kids to school or day care, spreading illnesses to other children, she said.

In fact, the industries with the most employees who lack paid sick days are those with the greatest exposure to the public: hotels and food services, home health care and child care, Kahn said. According to a 2007 report by ACORN, 85 percent of food service workers have no paid sick days.

On the campaign trail, Democratic frontrunners U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and U.S. Sen. Barack Obama have come out in support of mandatory paid sick days. And in Congress, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) vowed to call a vote this year on a bill – the Healthy Families Act – that would require businesses with 15 or more employees to give workers at least seven paid sick days per year.

But the movement faces stiff opposition from business leaders who say the requirement would drive up costs, force layoffs and put some companies out of business.

As result, only San Francisco has succeeded in enacting a mandatory sick-day law.

“Political leaders are far behind the public on this issue,” said Nathan Newman, policy director for the Progressive States Network, which supports paid sick days. “I expect the issue in the next couple of years to become as ‘Mom and apple pie’ as minimum wage became two years ago,” he said.

This year, Alaska, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Vermont, West Virginia and the District of Columbia and Milwaukee, Wis., are considering paid sick-day bills. Connecticut and the District of Columbia are closest to enacting a measure, according to Jen Kern of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) advocates for low- and moderate-income families.

California, Montana and Rhode Island lawmakers already have plans to introduce sick day bills in 2008, although California may take up a bill later this year, Kahn said.

In Ohio, where some 2.2 million workers have no paid sick days, advocates collected the required number of signatures to seek legislative approval of a constitutional amendment requiring paid sick days. While the bill is not expected to pass, the group – Ohioans for Healthy Families – are ready to gather another round of signatures to put the issue on the November ballot.

A recent national poll indicates nine out of 10 voters approve of mandatory paid sick days, but businesses stridently oppose any effort to dictate what they say is a discretionary worker benefit. In Ohio, a recent poll by Quinnipiac University showed two out of three voters approve of paid sick days for all workers.

“A one-size-fits-all paid sick-leave mandate threatens employee benefits,” said Maureen Ryan of the National Restaurant Association . “Mandatory paid benefits that increase small-business costs would have to be recouped elsewhere, perhaps through reduced wages or fewer paid benefits in other areas,” she said.

Although most states legislatures have not yet tackled sick pay, several have enacted a related measure: requiring businesses to let workers with paid sick days use them to care for kids and other ailing family members.

According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research , only 30 percent of workers with sick pay can use the day off in this way. As a result, many workers take ill children to day care centers, infecting others.

Maine was the first state to pass a law in 2002, requiring employers that offer sick days to extend the policy to give workers greater flexibility in using the time off. California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Minnesota, Washington and Wisconsin adopted similar measures. Maryland will consider a similar measure this year, Kahn said.

Last year, 10 states – Florida, Massachusetts, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Wisconsin – considered sick-pay bills, but none were enacted.

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Christine Vestal

Christine Vestal covers mental health and drug addiction for Stateline. Previously, she covered health care for McGraw-Hill and the Financial Times.