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Paid Sick Leave Mandate Raises Employer Ire

September 20, 2007
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Just before its summer recess in early August, the Senate approved legislation that would extend unpaid leave for wounded military personnel from the 12 weeks allowed under current law to six months.

But it isn’t that expansion of leave that has business groups particularly worried. Nor is it larger bills that would establish paid leave for eight weeks. Those may be too large to squeeze through the legislative process in the near future.

Corporate advocates are instead keeping a wary eye on a more targeted measure that would require companies with 15 or more employees to provide seven paid sick days annually for people who work at least 20 hours each week.

The Senate bill has the enthusiastic sponsorship of Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts and chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Committee approval of the House version could occur whenever the Democratic majority decides to move.

“I would look at this as the more serious bill on the threat matrix,” says Marc Freedman, director of labor law policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

One reason business groups resist the paid sick leave bill is because the seven days would be added to companies’ existing paid-time-off benefits unless the leave was specifically designated as sick time.

In addition, the bill would prohibit employers from changing their leave policies between the time it is enacted and when it becomes effective.

Advocates for the bill, however, say that the relationship between paid time off and paid sick days has yet to be worked out because of the many PTO variations.

Besides, paid sick days will reduce costs for employers, says Vicky Lovell, director of employment and work/life programs at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

She argues that companies will save about $8 billion annually by reducing turnover, increasing productivity and curtailing the spread of the flu in the workplace.

Supporters highlight the successful launch of paid sick days in San Francisco, the first jurisdiction to implement such a law.

The transition has been smooth because the city communicated extensively with local businesses through a three-month hearing process and a Web site, according to Greg Asay, a senior analyst in the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement.

“The sky hasn’t fallen,” he says. “We kept our eye on ‘Let’s make this as simple as possible for employers to implement.’ ”

Regardless of company reaction, proponents say that they are building momentum for paid sick days because the policy would mostly benefit low-income and minority workers, many of whom are in the hospitality and food service industries.

“What we’re seeing throughout the nation is a real desire to move forward on economic justice issues,” says Sonya Mehta, a Young Workers United organizer. About 52 percent of private-sector employees receive paid sick days.

But the corporate lobby asserts that PTO is one of the most common benefits offered by employers, who will fight back if more is piled on legislatively.

“Paid leave is a threshold issue for the business community,” says Randel Johnson, vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Mark Schoeff Jr.

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