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Backers of Ohio Sick-Leave Initiative Pull Issue From Ballot

September 4, 2008
Related Topics: Medical Benefits Law, Future Workplace, Health and Wellness, Latest News
Supporters have pulled the plug on an Ohio ballot initiative that could have made the state the first to require employers to provide paid sick leave.
The union-backed coalition Ohioans for Healthy Families said it has decided to remove the issue from the November 4 ballot, ending its effort to get the initiative before voters. The coalition said it was backing out because of intense opposition to the measure.
Also influencing the group’s decision were indications by Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama that he would pursue sick-leave legislation. Obama said at last week’s Democratic convention that the measure of a strong economy was “whether the waitress who lives on tips can take a day off to look after a sick kid without losing her job—an economy that honors the dignity of work.”

Ohio Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, who opposed the state mandate, said he would support a federal sick-leave law co-sponsored by Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown.

“We decided to elevate the battle to a larger stage,” said Dale Butland, communications director for Ohioans for Healthy Families.

The Healthy Families Act would have required employers with 25 or more employees to guarantee full-time workers at least seven days of paid sick leave each year. Part-time employees would have received a prorated amount of time off that could be used to care for sick family members as well.

Employer groups strongly opposed the measure and were gearing up for an expensive fight to win over voters. Opposition to the sick-leave initiative had grown in recent weeks when Strickland said he would not support it.

The initiative represented the first effort nationwide to take paid sick leave, which has failed to pass through previous state legislatures, directly to the electorate. Ohioans for Healthy Families, whose members include unions, AARP and religious groups, proposed a bill this year that also died in the Legislature.

Employers strongly opposed the legislation, as they have similar efforts nationally, saying it would drive jobs elsewhere and depress wages and benefits.

Melanie Elsey, legislative director for the Strongsville, Ohio-based Ohio Roundtable, which opposed the measure, said there were too many requirements. The bill calculated time off in as little as 15-minute increments, didn’t define what would have constituted a legitimate paid sick day for mental health problems, didn’t require doctors to certify whether a person is legitimately sick, and did not provide any provision for multistate employers that may already offer sick leave.

“I think the language will encourage individuals to take paid time off at work when they are not sick and don’t have a sick family member,” Elsey told Workforce Management in a recent interview.

Butland said those assertions were unfounded.

“I don’t believe most companies require executives to bring in a doctor’s note,” he said in an interview last month. “Every time it’s regular people getting these things, everybody expects cheating to occur. The business community is obsessed with this idea that Ohioans are liars and cheaters out to scam employers.”

Advocates said paid sick leave would reduce costs by helping workers recover from illnesses more quickly while containing the spread of sickness in the workplace.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 43 percent of employees, or 66 million workers, in the private sector do not have paid sick leave. The policy research group Policy Matters Ohio estimated that based on the bureau’s numbers, 42 percent of Ohio workers, or 2.2 million people, do not have paid sick leave.

At least 11 other states are considering similar bills, but Matthew Gever, policy associate at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Washington, said none is likely to gain approval. The efforts nonetheless reflect a growing concern, he said.

“Basically, we’re seeing the beginnings of a wide movement,” he said.

Gever said West Virginia has the most restrictive proposed legislation, requiring employers to provide 12 weeks of unpaid time off for a serious illness. California has come close to passing legislation. In May, a bill that would require employers with 10 or more employees to give nine days of paid sick leave per year passed the state Assembly. The Senate has yet to vote on it. No federal paid-sick-leave law exists.

San Francisco became the first American city to pass a measure when it enacted a law last year requiring employers to provide seven sick days a year to employees.

—Jeremy Smerd

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