Sick Of No Sick Pay? Tough!

Of all the issues that President Barack Obama is sending off to Congress for its consideration this year, you'd think the Healthy Families Act would be among the least contentious.

But behind that innocuous name is an issue that is raising consternation coast to coast: Mandatory paid sick leave, up to seven days a year, for American employees.

Still sound innocuous? It might, since 81 percent of Americans in one recent poll, including a majority of Republicans, said they favor mandatory sick pay.

In the absence of a federal law mandating sick pay, there has been a small flurry of state and local initiatives imposing their own mandates. And many state governments are moving to squash such initiatives.

Eleven state legislatures have banned municipalities from passing local laws requiring that employees get paid sick leave, and a twelfth, Missouri's, is considering it, according to Fortune. The states are Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Oklahoma.

Wisconsin's legislators went further in 2011, repealing a sick leave law that Milwaukee voters had approved in a ballot initiative with a margin of 69 percent.

In these states, legislators argued that local government initiatives could create a confusing patchwork of laws regarding sick pay that would be onerous for business.

The preferred alternative is clearly no law on sick pay, not a statewide mandate.

States currently debating the issue include Maryland. The Maryland Chamber of Commerce opposes a statewide measure there, arguing that it would add 34 cents an hour to employer payrolls, and force businesses to either raise their prices or cut wages.

Local action on mandatory sick pay began in the absence of any likely federal action, and often in tandem with movements to raise local minimum wages. Voters in Massachusetts, the city of Oakland, and Montclair, New Jersey, all approved mandatory sick leave last November. Only about 12 other municipalities have such local laws in place.

Now, President Obama has stepped into the fray, asking Congress to pass a bill mandating that employees be eligible for up to seven paid sick days per year to take care of themselves or a sick family member.

The details were announced by his senior adviser Valerie Jarrett with a posting on LinkedIn in which she makes the White House case: "How many working parents know that sinking feeling from sending their child off to school with a fever? How many Americans have to show up to work when battling an illness even when they know they won't be at their best, it will lengthen their recovery time, and they may likely spread their sickness to others?"

According to the administration's own figures, about 43 million American workers know that sinking feeling. Only California, New Jersey and Rhode Island currently have state laws that require sick pay.

The opposition to sick pay in Congress is likely to be nearly identical to the opposition to a minimum wage increase. That is, it will be seen as an additional burden on small business, a "job-killer" in fact if not in intention.

As an alternative, House Republicans may propose relaxing requirements for premium payment for overtime work, according to one report. They will argue that workers could take flexible time off in compensation for overtime hours worked.

Meanwhile, President Obama is following the same strategy he used in seeking an increase in the federal minimum wage a year ago.

In that case, he used an executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors, then used the presidential bully pulpit to push for an increase for all American workers.

This time, he's using a executive order giving federal employees access to paid maternity leave.

And, he started talking up the sick leave proposal in personal appearances. "When they make that investment in their employees, there's a dividend," the president said during a stop at a café in Baltimore. "They end up being more profitable over the long term."

The strategy wasn't exactly a slam-dunk the first time around. Congress promptly shelved his minimum wage proposal.

However, there was an unintended consequence. The inaction of Congress spurred action by politicians and activists at the state level.

So far, 17 states and Washington D.C. have approved state minimum wages that are above the federal level.
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