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Opposition feeling better in paid sick leave battles

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Opposing forces in the paid sick leave battle are digging in for what is shaping up as a long struggle over worker rights vs. small business profitability.

Paying workers to stay home when they get sick, have family troubles or are emotionally distraught has become a cause celebre within the labor movement in the last few years. Supporters of paid sick leave scored some big victories early on. Now, the opposition, led by advocates for small business, are mounting a strong rebuttal.

On Friday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg vetoed a measure passed by the Big Apple’s city council that gave certain employees mandatory paid sick leave. And employers won a big victory in Oregon on Thursday when a bill to require all companies with more than 15 employees to offer their workers paid sick leave died in the state legislature.

Both actions signaled that the business community is on the offensive against mandatory sick time off.

In defending his veto, Bloomberg said, “The bill, which will impose significant new costs on employers and create a vast new bureaucracy, is bad for the city’s economy, and it will harm the very people it seeks to help.”

The sentiment in progressive Oregon was similar. Proponents had been optimistic about passage of the bill in the wake of the City of Portland’s adoption of a similar law in March. The New York City law, passed by the council there in May, gave Oregon supporters another boost. But opposition to the state-wide proposal in Oregon came together in time to derail the bill, at least for a year.

Among the opponents was the traditionally liberal Portland-based newspaper, the Oregonian. In an editorial denouncing the state bill just before last week’s hearings, the paper argued against taking the city’s policy statewide. Such laws, said the newspaper, seem benign but are actually damaging.

“Mandating paid sick leave on a statewide basis is a bad idea for the same reasons doing so in Portland was, from its effects on small businesses to those on the very employees it’s supposed to help,” the newspaper opined. “As well-intentioned as this mandate may be, it will increase costs for businesses – many struggling already – and do nothing to increase their revenue. How will they adjust?” The result, the paper said, would be another strike against Oregon as a place to conduct business.

In the end, facing a determined anti-sick leave business lobbying effort, the bill failed to garner the support it needed to move further in the process. Small employers across the state breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Mandatory sick leave has become a popular issue for progressives since San Francisco and Washington, D.C., first enacted such laws. Proponents have generally argued that it’s better for a sick employee to stay home and get better than take the chance of infecting others at work. They also want employees facing a family crisis to be able to get paid to stay home and deal with it. In that spirit, California, New Jersey and Washington now require paid family leave. Some laws stipulate both physical and mental illness as a legitimate reason to stay home with pay. 

In 2011, Connecticut became the first state to adopt such a law. The city of Seattle was another early adopter. When Portland joined the pack in March and the New York City Council adopted its own law in May, alarm bells went off in the HR offices of small businesses from coast to coast.

The Oregon setback, in a state known for its progressive employee benefits, was seen as a sign that perhaps paid sick leave may only achieve boutique status rather than becoming something more universal in nature. While proponents in Oregon say they will resurrect the mandatory sick leave bill next year, opposition to requiring small businesses to let employees call in sick and get paid has been mounting across the nation.

In Wisconsin, the legislature deep-sixed a Milwaukee law designed to require sick leave pay. Recently, the Connecticut state legislature began pondering a bill that would, according to progressives in the state, gut that state’s leading-edge sick leave legislation. Connecticut had extended the paid leave requirement to service industry employees only, but the current bill will further reduce the number of companies covered by the requirement.

Not only are the anti-leave lobbyists getting more organized, they are taking steps to preempt attempts by municipalities to enact mandatory sick leave laws. Bills have been passed in in Kansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arizona banning sick leave laws at the local level. Two more states – Florida and Michigan – are on the brink of adopting such bans. So the tide may, indeed, be turning against mandatory paid leave laws.

The mandatory laws on the books so far vary considerably as far as the details of who gets what when and which employers are required to participate. Here’s a sample of some of the provisions of the laws currently on the books:

Portland, Ore.: Employers with six or more employees must offer workers up to five days of sick leave each year. Employees receive an hour of leave for every 30 hours worked. 

New York City: Businesses with 20 or more employees must offer five paid sick days starting in April 2014; those with 15 or more must comply by October 2015. Employees accrue one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked. Each employee receives a minimum of five days a year.

Seattle: Employers with five to 249 employees must offer paid sick leave to workers, who accrue a minimum of one hour of paid leave for every 40 hours worked. Companies with 250 or more employees must offer plans in which employees accrue a minimum of one hour for every 30 hours worked.

Connecticut: Service industry workers who are paid by the hour accrue an hour of sick leave for every 40 hours worked. Employers with 50 or more employers must comply with the law. Other industries are exempt. 

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