Mandated Sick Leave Debate: Is there a middle ground?

by Lorna Lunney

The debate over mandatory sick leave continues to challenge state and city governments across the country. Most recently, Philadelphia fell one vote short for mandatory sick days leaving 180,000 workers without the benefit. This vote followed the second time Mayor Nutter vetoed a bill that would allow hourly workers without earned sick time to earn at least one hour for every 40 hours worked—with a maximum of 56 hours for business with 20 or more employees and 32 hours for small companies. Council members opposed to the bill mandating sick days are concerned the bill will disrupt the regulatory environment that is good for business.

The recent activity in Philadelphia is just one of many highly contested battles over paid sick days. New York City’s controversy over this type of legislation even affected the race for mayor. Christine C. Quinn, New York City Council Speaker announced her campaign for mayor and subsequently jump-started negotiations on sick days, working closely with a local building service workers’ union. Negotiations seemed fruitful in that a deal was made concluding a rule that would apply to companies with 50 or more workers. In addition, companies exempt from the requirement because of their low number of employees would have to offer workers 5 days of unpaid sick leave annually. Quinn stated, “We have a good, strong and sensible piece of legislation that recognizes the needs of everyday new Yorkers and the realities that our struggling small businesses face.”

Another heated series of arguments took place in Vermont this month. Lobbyists for business coalitions argued the bill forces a “one-size-fits-all” mandate upon employers and any type of paid off time policy should be left up to the employer. Advocates form the Vermont Paid Sick days Coalition argued that employees are often forced to choose between going to work and risk worsening their condition, going into debt, or possibly losing their jobs because they get ill.

Across the country there is a deep divide over this issue. Advocates for paid sick leave continue to argue there are not only humane reasons for this type of benefit but also safety reasons. The flu season is often referenced in connected arguments as the spread of epidemics are easily facilitated by having sick employees in the workplace. Employees not financially able to miss work for being ill are therefore in the office amongst other employees, facilitating the spread of these contagious germs. According to a 2010 survey by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center, employees without sick days are more likely to go to work with a contagious illness, send an ill child to school or day care and use hospital emergency rooms for care.  With a mandated paid sick leave framework, advocates believe the workforce and country as a whole will be less vulnerable to the spread of contagious illnesses. In addition, the advocates argue that getting ill or having to taken care of your ill child or dependent elder is a matter of human nature that should be recognized through this type of legislation.

But what are the economic consequences of such legislation. It seems morally and humanly comprehensible to allow workers to take care of their illness and those that depend on them. It also seems logical that having infected workers in the workplace facilitates the spread of contagious illnesses. But, in a struggling economy as we are in today, many business owners are simply in survival mode. The National Business Group on Health issued a position paper that suggests a national mandate for companies to provide paid sick days would cost businesses up to $35.5 billion annually. So, where is the middle ground?