- The Washington Times - Monday, June 8, 2009

If you’re sick, stay home.

That has been the message from the government as it tries to cope with a potential swine flu pandemic.

But for 57 million Americans without paid sick leave, it’s easier said than done. Catching the flu can mean having to choose between showing up for work or forfeiting pay.

So last week Connecticut tried — but failed — to be the first state in the nation to mandate that businesses provide paid sick leave. The bill passed the state’s House of Representatives but came up one vote short in the Senate, even after a three-year-long battle to push it through.

The fight showed how difficult it may be for proponents to pass a similar law on the national level. The Healthy Families Act (HFA), legislation introduced in Congress last month by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat; Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat; and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Connecticut Democrat, will make its subcommittee debut Thursday.

Businesses are scrambling to oppose the federal legislation, saying that mandated sick leave will result in more wage and job cuts in an already turbulent economy.

Lisa Horn, manager of health care at the Society for Human Resource Management, said her organization opposes a “one-size-fits-all” government sick leave mandate because it forces businesses to make budget cuts in other areas.

“Employers are going to have to scale back on benefits that employees value,” she said. “Overall, it limits an employer’s flexibility.”

James Sherk, a labor policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, agreed.

“It’s going to be a mandatory pay cut for every worker affected by it,” he said.

But supporters say that guaranteeing sick leave will boost productivity because workers will get the rest they need to recover and won’t be spreading illness in the workplace. They say that’s especially important in light of swine flu’s spread.

“The lack of paid sick days is a public health concern. This was brought front and center during the H1N1 outbreak,” said Ms. DeLauro, the House sponsor of HFA.

In addition, the HFA would provide paid leave for workers when they take days off to care for sick children or spouses.

“If Congress passes this bill, millions of workers will no longer have to choose between a paycheck and recovery when they get sick or a family member needs care,” National Partnership for Women & Families President Debra L. Ness said.

A previous version of the HFA stalled in Congress in 2007. The new version would mandate paid sick leave for all workers at businesses with more than 15 employees. Workers would accrue one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours worked, capping at seven days per year. Workers would have to provide documents proving illness if they take a leave longer than three consecutive days.

After three years of alterations, the Connecticut legislature’s bill required all businesses with more than 50 employees provide paid sick leave on an accrued scale similar to the HFA’s. Its failure to pass at the generous level of 50 employees does not bode well for the HFA.

The Connecticut legislation faced fierce opposition from the Connecticut Business and Industry Association (CBIA).

“To have government mandate a minimum amount of paid sick leave in a time when many businesses are struggling around here, is just nonsensical,” said Kia Murrell, assistant counsel for the CBIA.”You’re literally at a point where you could cripple people.”

She also noted that Connecticut was one of the toughest states in which to do business, even before the recent recession.

But Connecticut Sen. Edith Prague, a lead supporter of paid sick leave legislation, said Connecticut businesses would profit from the requirement.

“There was an article in Forbes that clearly documented the fact that if your employees are healthy, they produce a better product. They don’t infect other employees,” she said.

Ms. Prague was not aware of the Healthy Families Act. When informed it applied to businesses with 15 or more employees, she responded: “15? Oh, I love it!”

Supporters of sick leave legislation say 79 percent of low-wage workers do not have access to a single paid sick leave day. A 2008 survey by the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center, however, put the number at 38 percent for workers in all sectors who did not have any form of paid sick leave whatsoever. And publications from the Heritage Foundation said that 86 percent of full-time workers have paid sick leave.

In the past three years, both San Francisco and Washington passed laws requiring businesses to offer sick leave.

Jim Lazarus of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce said the 2006 law has had a negligible effect on the 2,000 businesses that the chamber represents. He said that’s because 90 percent of the businesses already had a sick leave benefit of equal or greater value to that required in the legislation. He said his office has received very few complaints regarding the law.

Janene Jackson of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, which opposed the 2008 D.C. mandate, said proposed regulations have been confusing and there is not yet enough evidence to say how the law has affected businesses. D.C. officials have not yet issued final guidelines for applying the law.

Mr. Sherk of the Heritage Foundation was especially concerned with the HFA’s potential effect on small businesses.

“It’s the smaller companies which are less likely to offer it, because they’re concerned for the potential for abuse,” he said.

Smaller companies are more reliant on workers to show up, he said, because employees who can call in sick at any time of the year without having to offer a doctor’s note, by right of law, injure small businesses’ work flow and reliability for customers. Mr. Sherk cited the “rampant” abuses of the Family Leave and Medical Act of 1993 (FMLA), as documented by public comment to the Labor Department. He said that the cases showed workers had used FMLA to skip work or misuse leave.

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