Amid Flu, a Call for Days Off

By Meg Breslin

Nov. 20, 2009

With the H1N1 pandemic weighing on everybody’s mind, employee advocacy groups are renewing their push for federal and state legislation making paid sick days mandatory, hoping that flu fears will speed the measures forward.

On the federal level, the National Partnership for Women and Families, a nonprofit group that promotes workplace fairness and health care issues, is lobbying for the Healthy Families Act, which would guarantee workers up to seven paid sick days a year to recover from illnesses or to care for family members during theirs. The measure also provides sick time for medical tests and appointments.

Initially sponsored by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, the legislation now counts Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Connecticut, among its key sponsors. Hearings on the bill were held in the last Congress, but there has been no action on it since June. Supporters expect the bill to be reintroduced in the next several months, after the debates over health care reform have subsided, says Steffany Stern, policy coordinator for the National Partnership. “H1N1 has really brought this issue to life,” she says.

In Illinois, the Chicago-based advocacy group Women Employed is backing the Healthy Workplace Act. The bill, sponsored by Illinois state Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez, failed to come to a vote in the labor committee last session amid the state’s budget crisis and opposition from business leaders, but Hernandez plans to reintroduce it next year.

Backers say 2.5 million private-sector workers—or 43 percent of the state’s workforce—lack paid sick days, according to a March study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington.

Similar to the proposed federal legislation, the Illinois measure would allow workers to earn up to seven paid sick days a year, accrued hourly for every 30 hours worked, and would provide leave for the illness of the employee and family members, and for medical appointments.

Although no state legislatures have yet passed paid-sick-leave bills, one in Connecticut just narrowly missed earlier this year and laws have been passed in several cities, including San Francisco, Washington and Milwaukee, Stern says. An aggressive campaign for mandatory paid sick days also is under way in New York, and several other states are debating bills, she says.

Many employee advocacy groups agree that the H1N1 pandemic highlights the problems faced by low-wage workers with limited, if any, health benefits.

“Folks in our industry tell us all the time that if they’re sick, they won’t stay at home because there’s no guarantee that they’ll have a job the next day,” says Jose Oliva, a Chicago-based policy coordinator for New York-based Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, an advocacy group for restaurant workers.

Many business groups oppose the legislation out of fears that it would cripple industries already suffering under the recession.

“Obviously, we’re all very concerned about [H1N1], but this is an expensive venture we’re looking at,” says Kim Clarke Maisch, Illinois state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, with 350,000 members nationally and 11,000 in Illinois. “If you don’t have workers show up for work, you’re not pushing a product and you’re not making any money.” She pointed to a June 2008 study by the federation of a similar proposal in California that estimated companies there would cut 370,000 jobs within five years of the bill’s passage because of the cost. The study estimated costs of the proposal at 1 percent of small firms’ sales annually.

Meg McSherry Breslin is a writer based in the Chicago area.

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