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Paid Sick Leave Bill’s Impact Depends on Legislative Details

March 22, 2007
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Related Topics: Employee Leave, Benefit Design and Communication, Health and Wellness, Latest News
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A recently introduced bill that would mandate paid sick days is generating concern among HR practitioners about how it would affect companies that already offer paid time off.

Under the Healthy Families Act, which was authored by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, and unveiled on the Senate floor March 15, companies with at least 15 employees would have to provide seven days of paid sick leave annually for each person who works 30 or more hours each week.

A prorated number of days would have to be offered to those who work less than 30 hours. Unused days could roll over from year to year. A similar bill has been introduced in the House by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut.

Kennedy promotes the bill as a vehicle for economic fairness, arguing that almost half of private-sector workers—and an even greater percentage of low-wage earners—don’t receive paid sick days to care for themselves or their children.

He also says the measure would improve public health because so many workers in the food service industry don’t have access to sick days.

Most people in the HR community don’t oppose giving workers time off if they’re sick. In fact, many companies already offer paid leave as an incentive to attract talent. But that’s also the reason that the bill is raising red flags.

It’s unclear whether paid-time-off days would count toward the required seven paid sick days or whether the mandated days would be layered on top of PTO.

An aide to Kennedy, who is chairman of the Senate Health Education and Pensions Committee, says that the bill would not tack extra sick days on to voluntary leave a company already has in place.

“It wouldn’t add to their total,” says Laura Capps, a Kennedy spokeswoman. Her boss’ bill “gives a floor of guaranteed sick days. It [ensures] that people have at least seven paid sick days.”

But the chief lobbyist for a major HR organization isn’t as certain about how the bill will affect PTO days and how it relates to the Family and Medical Leave Act.

“The equivalency test is vague and it would need to be fleshed out further to see how it interacts with voluntary paid leave programs ... and other federal and state-mandated requirements,” says Michael Aitken, director of governmental affairs for the Society for Human Resource Management.

Working out those details was the main concern expressed by HR professionals assembled by SHRM on March 14 to lobby Capitol Hill on a range of legislation, including Kennedy’s bill.

“It’s not a bad thing,” Angela Hamilton, director of HR services for Benefit Resources, says of the measure’s theme—providing paid sick days. “It depends on how it plays out. There are just too many unknowns.”

There is plenty of initial skepticism. “They need to be more specific and they need to spell it out,” says Miriam Feibel, HR business partner at Firmenich, a Princeton, New Jersey, manufacturer.

In addition to concerns about PTO days, there is disquiet over the bill’s definition of a full-time employee as someone who works 30 hours or more per week.

At the Dollar and Thrifty auto rental chains, the definition of a full-timer is someone who works 35 hours a week. The company is incorporating more part-time employees in part to save money from a reduction in benefits.

“We’ve solicited a lot of part-timers,” says Henrietta Berroteran, director of field employee relations for Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group Inc. About 1,500 of the company’s 8,500 employees work part time, or less than 35 hours a week.

But if the Kennedy bill becomes law, it may undermine the savings generated by a part-time workforce. “It’s eliminated,” Berroteran says.

As Kennedy’s bill winds its way through the legislative process, HR officials, spurred by SHRM, intend to register their concerns with their states’ lawmakers.

Debbie Jorgens, an organizational development consultant for Thrivent Financial for Lutherans in Minneapolis, will outline qualms about the Kennedy measure’s potential impact on PTO days to a newly elected Minnesota Democratic senator.

“I’m counting on Amy Klobuchar,” Jorgens says. “She’s always impressed me as someone who will listen. It’s one of the reasons I voted for her. We’ll find out.”

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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