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Legislation for guaranteed paid sick leave gains momentum across US

June 28, 2010

While debate over health care reform roiled Congress and much of the country this past year, campaigns about a lower profile public health issue have been going on in several cities and states for several years. The ability to take paid days off for illness is a job perk workers at some businesses and public institutions enjoy, and may even take for granted, but it is by no means guaranteed for all employees. Some 57 million workers in the US have jobs that do not offer paid sick leave, making the US an outlier among nearly all other developed countries that have legal provisions setting some form of remunerated time off for illness. Should proponents of sick leave legislation succeed, though, it will no longer be a matter of employer benevolence or contractual negotiation on a company-by-company basis, but the law.

photo courtesy of National Partnership for Women & Families

Groups such as the National Partnership for Women and Families have been pushing local governments to require businesses to offer paid sick days, so workers may stay home from illness without having to sacrifice their income. A survey by the National Partnership finds that about 40 percent of private sector workers do not receive a single paid sick day off. The result, they say, are more people working sick: 55 percent of those workers say they have gone to work with a contagious illness for fear of losing their income or jobs otherwise; 23 percent say they have been explicitly threatened with job loss for taking time off for illness or to take care of a sick child.

Currently three cities – San Francisco, Milwaukee, and Washington, DC – have laws on the books guaranteeing paid sick days to all workers. In 2008 in DC, a coalition of unions and worker advocacy groups successfully pushed the City Council to pass legislation requiring large companies to offer seven paid sick days per year, with smaller companies (24 employees or fewer) offering three paid sick days. Supporters say the measure affects some 200,000 workers in the District.

Advocates have capitalized on their local successes and broad public support (a poll by the Public Welfare Foundation released this month found 75 percent of respondents supported legislation guaranteeing paid sick leave) to bring their issue to the national arena. Last year, Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Sen. Edward Kennedy reintroduced bills previously put forward in 2007. Titled the Healthy Families Act, the proposed law would require businesses with 15 or more employees to offer seven days of paid sick leave to their workers. Proponents hope others in the Senate will take up the issue following the late Senator Kennedy’s death, as they did with this year’s health care reform bill.

Roadblocks remain, from resistance from some business groups to implementation problems in those cities with laws in place: a 2010 follow-up report in the Washington Post found evasion or ignorance about the law to be widespread among both businesses and workers in Washington, DC. With greater national attention surrounding legislation pending on Congress, however, increased awareness will put those cities in the spotlight as models for what may become the norm for workers nationwide.

Guest blog by Michael Paarlberg

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