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DeLauro Says Paid Sick Days Bill Won’t Disrupt PTO Plans

May 19, 2009
During the recent swine flu outbreak, President Barack Obama told ill workers to stay home so that they wouldn’t infect their colleagues.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, found irony in the warnings. She says that tens of millions of Americans can’t take time off because they don’t have paid sick days.

On Monday, May 18, she introduced the Healthy Families Act, a bill that would enable workers to accrue one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours they work up to a total of 56 hours, or seven days.

“Every worker should have paid sick days,” DeLauro said at a Capitol Hill event Monday, May 18, sponsored by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “It is a matter of right and wrong … [it] is a matter of values. The time for this is now.”

DeLauro said that 57 million American workers do not get paid sick days, including 79 percent of the lowest-wage earners.

Her bill was introduced with 100 co-sponsors in the House—all Democrats. The Senate version is slated for introduction later this week. A hearing of a House Education and Labor subcommittee has been scheduled for June 11.

The measure would allow employees time off to care for themselves or a sick family member or to obtain preventive or diagnostic treatment. Employers could require certification for leave of more than three days in a row. The bill would apply to businesses with 15 or more employees.

Business groups are wary of how the measure might affect paid-time-off plans used by many companies.

“Employers that already provide this leave will not have to change their current policies at all, as long as their existing leave can be used for the same purposes described in the [bill],” says a statement released by DeLauro’s office.

A recent survey of 507 members of the Society for Human Resource Management found that 80 percent of their companies provide some form of sick leave—42 percent through a PTO plan, which allows workers to use the time for illness, vacation or personal reasons.

DeLauro said she does not want to upset existing leave programs.

“Let’s not reinvent the wheel, if companies don’t have to do that,” she said.

But SHRM is concerned that there could be complications in the details of the bill, which SHRM president and CEO Lon O'Neil characterized in a statement as "an inflexible, one-size-fits-all government mandate." SHRM contends the bill would "lock in" existing leave benefits and make it impossible for employers to adjust their offerings.

Partly in an attempt to find an alternative to the Healthy Families Act, SHRM released a set of principles for workplace flexibility on May 7 designed to ensure flexibility for employees and certainty for employers.

“SHRM envisions a ‘safe harbor’ standard where employers voluntarily provide a specified number of paid leave days for employees to use for any purpose, consistent with the employer’s policies or collective bargaining agreements,” the SHRM principles state. “In exchange for providing paid leave, employers would satisfy current and future federal, state and local leave requirements.”

But DeLauro and other advocates say that too few companies are offering sick days to their employees. A study for the economic and policy research group released Monday shows that among 22 of the most advanced economies in the world, the U.S. is the only country that does not guarantee some amount of paid sick leave.

“The United States is the odd one out,” DeLauro said.

Advocates for the bill dismissed concerns that granting paid time off would be too costly for businesses fighting the recession. They said that allowing workers to stay home while they are sick would increase productivity, lower turnover and reduce the risk of an outbreak of infection.

“What we can’t afford is not to do anything,” said Jody Heymann, a professor of epidemiology at McGill University in Canada and author of the Center for Economic and Policy Research study.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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