Washington Update

Washington Update: Paid sick leave gets presidential push

Proponents of mandatory paid sick leave have gained a big new ally: President Barack Obama.

“Today, we’re the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers,” Obama said Jan. 20 during his sixth annual State of the Union address.

As many as 43 million U.S. workers have no paid sick leave, which includes up to 40 percent of private-sector employees and 70 percent of all low-wage workers.

Obama requested that Congress pass legislation giving workers the right to accrue up to seven paid sick days per year. The president called giving workers paid sick leave the “right thing to do,” a position embraced by other members of his political party.

“It is a matter of good public health to ensure everyone is able to care for themselves and their families when an illness or emergency strikes,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) said in a joint statement. “Look no further than this season’s worse-than-expected flu outbreak to show why those who are sick should not be at work.”

Murray and DeLauro plan to reintroduce the Healthy Families Act, which would allow workers to earn one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked – up to 56 hours a year. (At press time, the bill had not been introduced in either the Senate or House.)

Paid sick days can help reduce the spread of diseases in the workplace, reduce employee turnover, and lower training costs, according to the congresswomen. This could lead to healthier, more productive workers, they said.

However, some prominent Republicans aren’t quite as sold on mandatory paid sick leave. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who now chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, alleged that “one more government mandate, however well-intentioned, will only reduce” the freedoms Americans have to choose where they work and how they negotiate with their employer for their compensation.

Paid sick leave could cost up to $11.4 billion over five years, Alexander said, and these additional costs would make it difficult for employers to open and run a business and hire new workers.

However, the Washington-based National Partnership for Women & Families, a strong proponent for paid sick leave, cited a study that found paying a worker to stay home when sick saves employers twice as much money than paying for them to work when sick. When employees come to work ill and do not perform well – known as “presenteeism” – employers lose as much as $160 billion a year in productivity.

Additionally, results from studies released by the Washington-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research indicate sick leave benefits of reduced worker turnover and spread of workplace infections outweigh the costs.

Learn which state and local governments are pursuing paid sick leave laws.

Another opponent of mandatory paid sick leave, Rep. John Kline (R-MN), is supporting a compromise of sorts in a bill that would allow workers to choose between paid time off or cash for working overtime hours. But NPWF has criticized the Working Families Flexibility Act as being a false choice between time and money, claiming employees could have little say on how much time they could save up and when they could use it.

Given Republican opposition, the push for paid sick leave may fall flat in Congress. If so, workers without paid sick days may find hope in state and local government initiatives. The number of states guaranteeing paid sick days for workers has grown in the past four years from none to three: California, Connecticut and Massachusetts. The Massachusetts paid sick leave measure passed in November’s election, as did paid sick day initiatives in Oakland, CA, and two New Jersey municipalities. Other major cities, including Seattle and New York, also mandate that employers provide workers with paid sick leave.

In his State of the Union address, Obama pledged “action” to help states adopt their own paid sick leave laws.

The opinions expressed in “Washington Update” do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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