Should Employers Be Required to Provide Paid Sick Leave?

Paid Sick Days Law Connecticut's passage of the nation's first statewide paid sick leave law has workers and business owners eyeing the trend to see its potential for adoption nationwide.

In part, that's because Connecticut was the first state to pass a Family Medical Leave Act, which required employers to grant employees unpaid leave for family and medical reasons with the guarantee of a job upon returning to work. A similar, federal FMLA was signed into law in 1993 by President Bill Clinton and now applies to most workers in all states.

As with FMLA, Connecticut's new paid sick leave law applies only to businesses with 50 or more employees. The bill also exempts manufacturers and nationally chartered nonprofits, such as the YMCA, and covers only workers in service professions who earn an hourly wage. The legislation provides workers with up to five paid sick days a year through a formula the gives workers one hour of sick time for every 40 hours worked.

Business groups and lawmakers opposed to the bill have criticized its passage, calling it a job killer, arguing that paid sick-leave laws drive businesses to other states that don't have such legislation.

Supporters say that workers who can take paid leave are more productive, dedicated and likely to show up to work on time.

In a statement following passage of the bill in the state House of Representatives on Saturday, Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat who pushed for the law, said:

"This is good public policy and, specifically, good public health. Why would you want to eat food from a sick restaurant cook? Or have your children taken care of by a sick day-care worker? The simple answer is -- you wouldn't. And now, you won't have to."

The bill is controversial, in part, because no one really knows if any of the claims -- pro or con -- are true. Nobody knows the answer, says Laura Hertzog, workplace expert at Cornell University's ILR School in Manhattan. But with Connecticut now taking the lead, an answer will be forthcoming in the next few years.

"People are going to watch [what happens]," she says. "This is now going to be the test case." Hertzog doesn't expect an immediate nationwide movement of states adopting legislation requiring employers to offer paid sick leave, although several cities, including San Francisco and Washington, D.C., have existing statutes.

The U.S. is the world's lone industrialized nation not to have a national labor policy governing sick leave -- or, for that matter, vacation. "Most civilized, industrialized countries have paid vacation," Hertzog says. "We do not, and most people do not realize that."

In that vein, the lack of a federal law mandating paid sick days is consistent with U.S. policies, in general, she says.

U.S. workplace policies are predicated on an initial belief that governments shouldn't interfere with companies' ability to make money as they see fit and to let business make its own decision.

Despite its free-market underpinnings, advocates for mandated paid sick leave argue that the American workplace not only needs such laws but exposes itself to risks unnecessarily in their absence.

As Malloy pointed out, no one benefits from having a food worker sneeze on someone else's meal.

"These are pretty fundamental issues," Hertzog says. "Sick people should not be at work if only for the reason that they'll make other people sick."

Another contention of the law's opponents is that workers will abuse the perk. But Hertzog doesn't think that's likely, especially among those service workers who rely on tips for a big chunk of their income.

"People are not going to abuse the system," she says, "because it's going to cost them money."

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