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H1N1 Paid Sick Leave Splits Democrats, Advocacy Groups

November 5, 2009
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With H1N1 flu fears spreading as fast as the sickness itself, a leading House Democrat wants rapid action on legislation that would give employees five paid sick days.

But in rushing out the measure on Tuesday, November 3, Rep. George Miller, D-California and chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, roiled paid leave advocates who worry that he gives employers too much power to determine who can stay home.

The author of broader paid sick leave legislation, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, is not on board.

“I am concerned that the Miller bill—while a modest step forward—would establish a limp paid leave benefit that is triggered by the employer and can also be taken away by the employer; and it offers no real guarantee that a working parent can care for a sick child,” DeLauro said in a statement Thursday, November 4, to Workforce Management.

DeLauro added that she “can work with Chairman Miller to make it a better bill.”

The House labor committee will hold a hearing on Miller’s measure, the Emergency Influenza Containment Act, the week of November 16. It’s unclear when or if a companion Senate bill will be introduced.

President Barack Obama declared the H1N1 pandemic—popularly known as swine flu—a national emergency on October 24.

Miller caught some in the advocacy community and on Capitol Hill by surprise with his proposal, which would guarantee five paid sick days to an employee if an employer “directs” or “advises” him or her to go home. The employer can end the leave at any time.

“Sick workers advised to stay home by their employers shouldn’t have to choose between their livelihood and their co-workers’ or customers’ health,” Miller said in a statement.

He asserts that at least 50 million workers lack paid sick leave.

The bill applies to companies with 15 or more employees but exempts those that already offer at least five days of sick leave.

DeLauro’s bill, the Healthy Families Act, would allow workers to accrue up to seven days of paid sick leave a year and gives them time off to care for sick family members.

Supporters of the DeLauro bill are cautious about Miller’s legislation.

“We want workers, not employers, to decide when they’re too sick to work and when they feel well enough to return,” said Lisa Maatz, director of public policy and government relations at the American Association of University Women.

Judith Lichtman, senior advisor at the National Partnership for Women and Families, said more work needs to be done on the Miller measure.

“We should all sit down and figure out how to retool this legislation so that it includes some of our most basic labor protections for working families,” Lichtman said. “We’re interested in seeing the bill strengthened, expanded.”

A business group, however, is gratified that Miller gives employers credit for existing leave programs.

“I was heartened to see that the idea that we’ve espoused is included in the bill,” said Mike Aitken, director of government relations for the Society for Human Resource Management. “It’s a recognition that employers are responding to this kind of leave.”

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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