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Dodd, DeLauro to Offer Emergency H1N1 Sick Days Bill

November 10, 2009

Two leading members of Congress on the issue of employee leave will team up to write a bill that would provide paid time off for workers who contract the H1N1 flu.

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Connecticut and chair of the Senate health subcommittee on children and families, announced at a hearing Tuesday, November 10, that he and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, intend to formally introduce the legislation in coming weeks.

He and DeLauro portrayed paid sick leave as the best way for workers to follow government directives to stay home if they fall ill.

“This isn’t just a workers’ rights issue—it’s a public health emergency,” said Dodd, who was the author of the Family and Medical Leave Act. “Families shouldn’t have to choose between staying healthy and making ends meet.”

Dr. Anne Schuchat, assistant surgeon general and an official at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, testified that the CDC advises people to stay home from work for three to five days if they come down with swine flu.

The organization encourages employers to institute flexible leave policies “so it’s easy for your employees to do the right thing,” Schuchat said.

But DeLauro argued that 57 million workers lack paid sick days and “following this critical advice is virtually impossible for far too many Americans right now.”

The Dodd-DeLauro measure will be based on a bill, the Healthy Families Act, that DeLauro unveiled earlier this year. At the Senate hearing, Deputy Labor Secretary Seth Harris said the Obama administration supports HFA.

Like that proposal, the emergency legislation will provide up to seven paid sick days for workers who contract H1N1 flu—also known as swine flu—or who need to care for a sick child.

The bill will be an alternative to an emergency sick days measure introduced on November 3 by Rep. George Miller, D-California and chair of the House Education and Labor Committee. Miller’s bill would provide five days of leave.

Another key difference between the two is that under Miller’s bill, the sick days would go into effect if an employer tells a worker to go home or stay home. Under the Dodd/DeLauro bill, an employee would decide when to use the days.

Both bills would go into effect within weeks of being signed into law and would sunset after two years.

DeLauro, a critic of the Miller bill, said that her and Dodd’s measure hews to the “core principals” of the Healthy Families Act and will gain the backing of the same 121 House members and 21 senators who have co-sponsored HFA.

“I think we will get substantial support because we have substantial support for the Healthy Families Act right now,” DeLauro said in an interview.

A hearing witness representing the Society for Human Resource Management, however, cautioned that the bill poses potential burdens for companies.

“SHRM has strong concerns with the one-size-fits-all mandate encompassed in the Healthy Families Act,” said Elissa O’Brien, vice president of human resources at Wingate Healthcare in Needham, Massachusetts. “At a time when employers are facing unprecedented challenges, imposing a costly paid leave mandate on employers could easily result in additional job loss or cuts in other important employee benefits.”

O’Brien’s organization provides its 4,000 employees with up to 33 days of paid leave each year that they can use for any purpose. A survey of SHRM members this year showed that 81 percent offer some form of paid leave.

She asserted that the HFA would disrupt paid leave programs if they fail to meet standards outlined in the bill.

Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming and the ranking member of the Senate health committee, asked DeLauro whether the bill addressed policies like compensating workers for unused sick time, allowing the use of partial and intermittent leave, and letting workers carry leave over to the next year.

“Those are the details that can get worked out,” DeLauro said.

Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, testified that companies with leave programs like Wingate’s would not be affected by HFA.

“We want this to be something that works well for employers and employees,” Ness said.

SHRM is promoting an alternative to HFA that revolves around exempting companies from federal leave law if they work out flexible leave arrangements with their employees.

Mike Aitken, SHRM director of government relations, is wary of the emergency sick leave proposal.

“It’s not clear how it interacts with current employer policies,” Aitken said.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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