Paid Sick Days: A Backgrounder

Last week, New York City joined five other cities and the state of Connecticut in mandating that employers provide their employees with paid sick days. The legislation comes at a time when almost 40 million workers, constituting nearly 40 percent of all private sector workers, lack the right to even a single paid sick day. Because these workers are largely concentrated in low-wage jobs, they often face serious economic consequences if they have to miss a day of work for illness. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that “a typical family of four with two working parents who have no paid sick leave will have wiped out its entire health care budget for the year after just three days of missed work.” In spite of these stark figures, most cities and states do not require employers to provide employees with paid sick days. But, if the last year or two is any indication, that may be changing. This backgrounder examines state and city-level legislation around paid sick days, looks at who the key players on both sides of the debate are, and explores the arguments for and against paid sick day mandates.

Paid Sick Day Mandates

In 2006, San Francisco, by popular referendum, became the first city in the country to require employers to provide their employees with paid sick days. Under the law, all employers must provide employees with between five and nine accrued sick days annually (depending on the size of the employer).

Two years later, Washington, D.C., followed suit. Under the law (amended in 2013), employers must provide employees with between three and seven accrued sick days annually (depending on the size of the employer), to be used by employees in the event that they or a family member is sick, or in the event that they or a family member is a victim of domestic violence, sexual abuse, or stalking (safe leave).

In 2011, Connecticut became the first (and so far, only) state to mandate paid sick days. The legislation is limited to service workers, but this category of workers is defined broadly to include social workers, food service managers, tellers, secretaries and administrative assistants, and the like. Like Washington, D.C.’s ordinance, in addition to sick days, the law permits “safe days” to be used by victims of domestic violence or sexual assault. Employees may accrue up to five sick/safe days a year. Seattle also adopted paid sick day legislation in 2011, requiring employers with more than four full-time equivalent employees to provide sick leave and safe leave.

Last year, and early this year, Portland, Oregon, New York City (passed last year, effective a week ago), Jersey City, and Newark joined the growing ranks of cities requiring paid sick days. New York City’s ordinance requires employers with five or more employees to provide employees with up to five sick days. Portland and Jersey City require small employers (defined as less than 5 employees in Portland and less than 10 in Jersey City) to provide up to five unpaid sick days and larger employers to provide up to five paid sick days annually. Newark requires all employers to provide three to five accrued sick days annually, depending on the employer’s size.

In addition, campaigns are underway to push for paid sick day legislation in almost 25 other states and cities. The campaigns are led by a diverse array of community groups, workers’, children’s, women’s, and public health advocates, including Restaurant Opportunities Center, the National Association of Social Workers, Working Families Party, Make the Road, the AFL-CIO, SEIU, and the National Partnership for Women and Families, among many others.

Although 75% of Americans (including 59% of Republicans) support paid sick day legislation, these laws have not been uncontroversial.

Paid Sick Day Law Preemption

Opponents of paid sick days have been pushing state-level legislation that preempts cities from passing paid sick day laws. These efforts have led to the enactment of preemption legislation in at least ten states, including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Wisconsin. Wisconsin’s 2011 legislation, passed in response to a Milwaukee paid sick day ordinance, (enacted by referendum in 2008), not only preempted future paid sick day legislation but retroactively repealed the Milwaukee ordinance.

Proponents of these statutes include large corporations (such as Disney and Darden – owner of the Olive Garden chain), ALEC, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its state affiliates, the National Federation of Independent Business, and the National Restaurant Association.

The Debate

Paid sick day advocates argue that the laws are vital to low-wage workers and their families, who are disproportionately denied paid sick days under the current system. In addition, proponents claim the laws are key to improving public health because they allow sick workers and sick children to stay home. This is particularly important in the restaurant industry, where the CDC has found that sick workers were responsible for 53% of norovirus outbreaks in the U.S. between 2001 and 2008.

Opponents of the law, on the other hand, claim that paid sick day laws will hurt employers’ businesses, and that the laws will disproportionately affect small businesses. They worry that in addition to “interfere[ing] with an employer’s ability to maintain a reliable, stable, workforce,” the laws will “exacerbate well-documented employee misuses of [medical leave laws].” As we reported yesterday, the California Chamber of Commerce has gone as far as listing a paid sick days bill on its annual “job killers” list. Only time will tell if these claims will bear out, but early evidence suggests they may be overblown.

Stay tuned.