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SHRM, Democrats Tangle Over Paid-Sick-Days Bill

June 11, 2009
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After the first hearing in its legislative history, it’s unclear whether a bill that would require companies to offer paid sick days will take a path toward reconciliation or strife between business and advocacy groups.

But at a June 11 meeting of a House Education and Labor subcommittee, the Healthy Families Act created tension between the panel’s Democratic chairwoman and an official of the Society for Human Resource Management.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-California, said the bill, which would allow employees to accrue up to seven paid sick days each year, would provide economic security for workers who cannot take time off for themselves or loved ones during an illness because they are afraid of losing their jobs.

Woolsey asserted that only 8 percent of workers have paid family and medical leave. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut and author of the bill, said that almost half of private-sector workers lack paid sick days.

SHRM chief operating officer China Miner Gorman warned that the bill would foist new requirements on employers that could turn out to be as difficult and costly to administrate as the Family and Medical Leave Act—whose 200 pages of regulations she held up at the hearing.

During the questioning of witnesses, Woolsey turned to Gorman first. Woolsey noted that she was once an HR professional at a technology company in the 1970s that provided paid leave while growing from 12 to 800 workers.

“We would have bent over backwards if one of our employees had a family matter,” Woolsey said. She implied that too many companies today don’t offer the same support.

“What do you think HR people are all about?” Woolsey asked Gorman, after twice calling SHRM “shoorum,” and declaring “that doesn’t say anything to me” after Gorman gave her the proper pronunciation.

Gorman responded, “HR people are all about having an active and productive workforce. Our members are very clear that providing paid time off … is an important part of an employee’s total compensation.”

More than 81 percent of SHRM members who responded to a recent survey said that their company provides paid sick time, while 42 percent offered paid time off that could be used for sickness, vacations and personal matters, according to Gorman.

During her testimony, Gorman introduced SHRM’s principles for developing workplace flexibility law, which include encouraging employers to offer paid time off in exchange for protection from federal, state and local leave requirements.

“Congress should build on the progress that is already being made by offering incentives for employers to do more—not risk the unintended consequences of another government mandate,” Gorman said.

For proponents, the bill represents economic and social justice.

“It is a basic matter of right and wrong,” DeLauro said. “These workers put their jobs on the line every time they take a day off.”

Republicans said the bill would raise labor costs and force businesses to lower wages and freeze hiring.

“This Congress and [the Obama] administration are killing even the possibility of new jobs,” said Rep. Tom Price, R-Georgia.

The Center for Economic and Policy Research released a study at the hearing that said that mandatory paid sick days did not result in higher unemployment in 22 of the largest economies around the world.

The sick-days bill would improve individual and public health by allowing workers to stay home during pandemic and seasonal flu outbreaks, according to another study released at the hearing. It was conducted by Human Impact Partners and released by the National Partnership for Women and Families.

Debra Ness, president of the partnership, said that opponents warn of economic catastrophe each time leave legislation is introduced.

“We don’t have any evidence that these [predictions] are going to come to pass,” Ness said.

But one witness forecasted that companies that currently offer paid time off would not automatically be in compliance with the bill.

“Under the HFA, employers who are already providing these benefits would be subject to a new regulatory regime, additional compliance and record-keeping costs and litigation for alleged violations of the law,” said Victoria Lipnic, former assistant secretary of labor for employment standards.

SHRM is ready to push back. Mike Aitken, SHRM director of government affairs, said that the Healthy Families Act could meet the same resistance in the Senate that has tied up a bill that would make it easier for employees to join unions, the Employee Free Choice Act.

“The only thing that gets [SHRM members] more riled up than HFA is EFCA,” Aitken said.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.
 
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