By Helene Schonbrun
In June, when New York became the most populous city to require employers to offer paid sick days, it not only gave one million workers access to sick pay that they did not have before, but it fueled hope for those working towards a national mandate. Debra Ness, President of the National Partnership for Women and Families, called passage of the New York City law a “huge pivotal step for the country.”
The Proposed Healthy Families Act
In a 2009 study of twenty-two countries with comparable economies, the U.S. is only one of three that had no national policy requiring employers to offer paid sick days. San Francisco was the first city to mandate sick pay, in 2007. New York City has since joined Washington, DC, Seattle, WA, and Portland, OR in passing sick pay laws. The only state that has passed legislation was Connecticut, in 2011.
The federal Healthy Families Act has been introduced several times over the last few years, but has failed to emerge from Congressional committees. The bill was reintroduced in Congress in March, by Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and was sent to House and Senate Committees for review. Surely, its sponsors are hopeful that it will benefit from the momentum generated by the recent victory in New York, where Mayor Bloomberg’s veto was overridden, as well as from the twenty other sick pay campaigns in cities and states across the country.
Purposes and Effects of the Bill
The Healthy Families Act will let thirty million more workers earn paid sick days, expanding access to ninety percent of the private sector workforce.
- For the individual: It spares employees from having to make the choice between taking care of themselves (or a family member) and losing a day’s pay or risk being fired. In a 2010 University of Chicago study, one in eight workers reported that they or a family member had lost a job, been threatened with job loss, or been penalized when they had taken time off to care for themselves or another relative.
- For the public: Another purpose is to avoid a substantial health risk that occurs when employees come to work sick, especially those who serve the public. Forty percent of the U.S. private sector workforce and seventy percent of low-wage workers – including food service, hospitality, nursing home care and child care employees – lack sick pay. Also, the health risk of infecting other children at school or daycare is avoided when parents can keep a sick child home because their pay or job is not being jeopardized by their absence.
- For business: Money for workplaces will be saved. According to Representative DeLauro, “presenteeism,” that is, showing up to work when ill, costs $160 billion in lost productivity for businesses each year (more than absenteeism) and also causes more on work-site accidents. In the long-run, healthier employees will boost productivity and improve worker retention. Additionally, businesses will share in a huge savings in healthcare costs, reaping the benefits of 1.3 million fewer emergency visits each year, which will save $1 billion in health care costs for public and private payers of health insurance.
Earning and Using Sick Time
The Healthy Families Act requires that businesses with fifteen or more employees allow workers to earn up to seven days (fifty-six hours) of paid sick leave per year. Workers will earn a minimum of one hour of paid sick time for every thirty hours worked and will be eligible to take paid sick time after working sixty days.
It allows use of sick days to:
- Recover from an illness and care for a family member who is ill: An employee may take time off to care for herself or a family member such as a parent, parent-in-law, spouse, or child, as well as a domestic partner and her parent or child.
- Go to a doctor or other appointment for preventive care or a diagnostic procedure: An employee may use her sick time to go to a routine check-up or other preventive care appointments, such as a mammogram screening. This provision removes a barrier to receiving cancer screenings and preventive care that a 2012 study found exists for those workers who do not have paid sick days.
- Seek help and services if one is a victim of domestic abuse: Domestic violence causes eight million days of lost work because victims need to take time off for health-related reasons and to otherwise deal with their situation, such as going to court for restraining orders and finding housing.
Opponents of Sick Pay Legislation – Preemption Bills
There is much to be overcome if sick pay is to become the national standard. Business owners and those who protect their interests have opposed sick pay laws because of financial concerns that they say will render their businesses unprofitable and could cause them to have to make cuts in their workforces. Some cities, such as Philadelphia, whose bill was vetoed by its Mayor, have been unsuccessful in overcoming these concerns, and efforts to pass sick pay laws in those cities have failed. In addition, preemption bills barring cities and localities from enacting sick pay legislation have been passed in half a dozen states, most recently in Florida, and more preemption bills have been proposed.
Opposition abounds, despite the fact that sick pay has been shown to have an overall positive effect on the economy. A recent article in The New York Times discusses the effects of the implementation of sick pay laws in those cities that mandate it and concludes that the great concerns of businesses have generally not materialized.
What You Can Do
Thirty million people need your help! You can contact your members of Congress and encourage them to support the bill. Currently, it has 117 co-sponsors in the House and 19 co-sponsors in the Senate, the largest number of co-sponsors ever garnered by the bill.
Check whether your Representative and Senators are co-sponsors. On these websites, you can also click on the House and Senate Committees, which are reviewing these bills, to get a list of the Committee members, to contact them, as well.
If you need help finding the names of your members of Congress, please visit Open Congress.
For more information on city-, county-, and state-wide sick pay campaigns around the country and to learn how to get more involved, visit http://PaidSickDays.org.
Helene Schonbrun is an attorney living in New York who recently externed at the LegalHealth unit of NYLAG (New York Lawyers Assistance Group). She is also a cancer survivor and writer — her latest piece, a personal perspective on BRCA testing, was posted on the National Cancer Legal Services Network blog at www.nclsn.org.