Take Another Look at Paid Sick Leave

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In recent months, several states and localities have passed laws to mandate paid sick leave. Here’s an update:

  • California and Massachusetts each have passed required sick leave laws that kick in on July 1, 2015. They follow Connecticut, which became the first state to require certain employers to provide paid sick leave in 2012.
  • The Oregon legislature recently passed a law, which is expected to be signed by the governor, mandating most employers with 10 or more employees to provide up to 40 hours of paid sick leave beginning on January 1, 2016.
  • Approximately 20 cities, including Newark, New York City, Portland (Oregon), Philadelphia, Seattle, Tacoma and Washington, D.C., have required sick leave laws on the books.
  • Active lobbying for paid sick leave mandates are in full swing in at least 29 more areas, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families, an advocacy organization supporting such efforts.

Mandated sick leave policies vary from state to state and city to city. One way the policies differ is in the grounds required for taking sick leave. All allow workers to use sick leave when they’re ill themselves or need to care for certain sick family members. Some also cover time spent obtaining preventive care. In addition, laws in several jurisdictions require that leave be granted for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking.

Proposed Federal Law

Those last three criteria are incorporated into the proposed Healthy Families Act, which is endorsed by President Obama. However, paid sick leave requirements have been proposed — and rejected — by every Congress since 2004.

For perspective, the sick leave benefit that would be mandated under the Healthy Families Act would require that employees be able to earn up to seven days of “job-protected paid sick leave” per year. The benefit would be accrued at a rate of one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours worked.

The law, if passed, which could serve as a model for state and local governments, would exempt employers having fewer than 15 workers.

Existing Laws

Under some existing paid sick leave mandates, employers are subject to the laws as measured by the number of employees they have. For example, employees living in Massachusetts who work for employers having 11 or more employees will receive up to 40 hours of paid sick time per calendar year, while those working for smaller employers will receive up to 40 hours of unpaid sick time annually.

Existing sick leave mandates may also differ in terms of the length of time an employee must be on the job before becoming eligible. For example, in California, employees who work for 30 or more days within a year from the beginning of employment are entitled to benefits. Paid sick leave accrues at the rate of one hour per every 30 hours worked, paid at the employee’s regular wage rate. Accrual begins on the first day of employment or July 1, 2015, whichever is later.

Obviously, given the pushback from Congress for more than a decade, there’s disagreement about the idea of making paid sick leave a national requirement. Bear in mind that during those years, both the Democrats and the Republicans have held control of Congress at different times, so the issue isn’t strictly partisan.

In spite of a lack of agreement, the majority of workers — 61% — were receiving paid sick leave from their employers at the time of the most recent survey data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), detailed in the chart below.

Absent a mandate, what motivates an employer to offer paid sick leave? Generally, the reasons include the need to attract and retain good employees, as well as the obvious need to prevent the spread of disease and illness in the workplace.

Infecting Co-workers

As evidence to support the second point, advocates of paid leave can cite a 2010 study, “Sick at Work: Infected Employees in the Workplace during the H1N1 Pandemic.” Using data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the BLS, authors Robert Drago, PhD, and Kevin Miller, PhD, drew several conclusions, including:

  1. During the peak of the pandemic in the United States, more than 90% of public sector employees, and only 66% of private sector employees, took time away from work when infected with the H1N1 flu “despite admonitions to remain home if ill.”
  2. Employees who attended work while infected with H1N1 (roughly 8 million in total) are estimated to have caused the infection of as many as 7 million co-workers.

Presumably, many of those infected co-workers ended up taking time off, or were less productive if they felt compelled to work while sick. The study didn’t estimate how many of those who remained on the job while infected lacked sick leave benefits.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) also conducted a survey, “Examining Paid Leave in the Workplace.” It looked at sick leave policies in greater detail than the CDC/BLS study mentioned earlier, and found that 81% of responding employers provide some form of paid leave to employees. Note: All companies surveyed were SHRM members and were large enough to have human resource departments.

Paid Time Off

Participants in the SHRM study were evenly divided between employers who offer paid sick leave as part of a paid-time-off policy (commonly called PTO, which includes vacation and personal days), and those having a standalone sick day benefit. Here are some additional highlights of the study:

  • Employers offering sick leave as a standalone benefit allow an average of 10 days of sick leave.
  • Only 14% of employers offering sick leave as a standalone benefit don’t cap the number of sick days employees can take in a year.
  • Among the remaining employers, 59% allow new hires to begin accruing sick leave immediately and 38% allow new hires to take sick leave immediately.
  • Finally, 15% of employers use employee tenure to determine the number of sick days.

Good Time to Review Your Policy

Clearly, this is an important topic. It’s a good idea to review all employee benefits from time to time. Offering paid sick leave can help your business attract and retain employees and keep your workforce healthy. If your business doesn’t provide it, you might want to consider doing so in light of the growing movement to mandate paid sick leave.

© Copyright 2015. All rights reserved.

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