When Wanda Cobbs’ two children fell ill for an extended period this winter due to complications from their Type I diabetes, the decision to stay home to care for them came more easily than it had in the past. Thanks to a Connecticut law that took effect last year, Cobbs, a school bus driver for the West Hartford public schools system, had access to paid sick leave for the first time.
“It was hard because you didn’t have anything to fall back on,” Cobbs said about previous decisions to stay home with her sick children. “You just had to lose that time from work and not be paid for it.”
Connecticut, which allows service workers who receive an hourly wage to earn one hour of paid sick time for every 40 hours worked, is the first state in the nation to mandate paid sick leave.
“Now I don’t have to choose: Do I want to work and get paid, or do I want to stay at home with the kids and get them well,” Cobbs said.
Many workers aren’t nearly as lucky. Laws mandating paid sick leave are only in place in a handful of places around the country, including the District of Columbia, San Francisco and Seattle; New York City is expected to soon follow.
But if Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., get their way, that will change for millions of workers across the country.
They are sponsoring legislation to allow workers to earn up to 56 hours, or seven days, of paid sick leave annually. Employees would earn one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked. Employers can require workers to provide documentation supporting any request for leave longer than three consecutive days. Employers who already provide paid sick time will not have to change their current policies.
“A full 40 percent of private sector American workers have no access to paid sick days — meaning that they cannot miss a day of work without risking a day’s pay or even their job security,” Harkin said recently. “When illness or emergencies strike, millions of hardworking people must make an impossible choice between the job they need and their health and well-being — or that of their families.”
DeLauro, who hopes the policy in her home state will herald a national trend, has introduced the Healthy Families Act in every Congress since 2004. The legislation has more co-sponsors than ever before, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who had not previously backed it.
“Everyone should be able to take care of themselves and their families when they are sick without having to worry about losing their jobs,” DeLauro said.
But mandated paid sick leave still faces an uphill battle. It’s on the “kill list” of powerful business lobbying organizations such as the National Restaurant Association. The American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative nonprofit, is even helping state and local governing boards pass pre-emptive legislation to prevent the future adoption of laws mandating paid sick leave.
Another obvious hurdle is the Republican House, where business interests are well-protected.
“Clearly it’s not going anywhere in the House,” noted Marc Freedman, executive director of labor law policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who added that Democrats didn’t make the issue a priority when they enjoyed larger numbers in Congress. “If they were so concerned with this issue, that was the moment they had. At this stage, it’s hard for me to see they’ll make a big push on it.”
Even still, advocates are optimistic about the prospects for a federal paid-sick-leave law and they hope to capitalize on building national momentum, since so many states and cities are passing their own initiatives. Most recently, New York City reached a deal in late March that would require companies with 15 or more employees to provide five paid sick days each year to full-time workers.
“We are buoyed by successes in New York City, which provided more protections to people in one fell swoop than all current paid sick leave legislation combined,” said Vicki Shabo, director of work and family programs at the National Partnership for Women and Families, an advocacy group at the forefront of the debate.
Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, signed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, employees can receive 12 weeks of medical leave, albeit unpaid, if they work full time at a business with 50 or more employees for a year or more. According to a recent Labor Department study, only about 1 in 6 work sites reports that it is covered by the law.
Many workers without paid sick leave at their company don’t bother to tap their unpaid sick leave because they can’t afford to miss a day’s earnings. Inability to afford the leave is the reason given by 46 percent of workers with unmet need for leave, according to the same Labor Department study.
Critics, however, point to a recent report that found that because of the expense of implementing a policy on paid sick leave, Connecticut businesses are increasing employee benefit costs or passing the costs on to consumers.
The study, by the Employment Policies Institute, surveyed 156 Connecticut businesses, 86 of which started providing sick leave to comply with the new law. Before the law took effect in January 2012, 31 of the businesses surveyed scaled back employee benefits or reduced paid leave, or both, to account for the cost of the law. Twelve cut back employee hours, and another six reduced employee wages.
In addition, 19 businesses raised consumer prices and six laid off employees. Another 16 businesses indicated they had decided to limit or restrict their expansion within the state.
The study “really does confirm many of the expectations and predictions we’ve been making about this type of legislation,” Freedman said. “It will force employers to make choices that are not necessarily the ones advocates are expecting, like cutting back on hours and reducing overall hours.”
Harkin, DeLauro and other supporters counter by underscoring the public health hazard of failing to provide paid sick leave. They argue that their bill would help stop the spread of illness, especially by workers who have frequent contact with the public, such as low-wage workers in the food service, hospitality, nursing home and child care industries who often don’t have paid sick days.
“Showing up to work when you are sick costs employers a staggering $160 billion a year in lost productivity and further spreads sickness to others,” DeLauro said.
Although several studies back up that claim, critics of policies on paid sick leave reject it, arguing that little evidence exists that workers without paid sick leave come to work ill. The Employment Policies Institute study, for example, found that nearly 90 percent of all responding businesses indicated that sickness in the workplace was not a serious problem before the law took effect, and just three businesses described it as a “serious problem.”