Flu Outbreak Could Give Momentum to Paid-Sick-Days Bill

By Staff Report

Sep. 22, 2009

An outline posted at recommends that employers “establish policies for employee compensation and sick-leave absences unique to a pandemic.”
Such directives could boost momentum for legislation requiring employers to provide paid sick days as preparations ramp up for an outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus this fall. 

Even with the government urging companies to keep sick workers at home, the measure faces significant legislative obstacles.

But advocates are using the flu scare to promote the bill. Titled the Healthy Families Act, it would enable workers to accrue one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours they work up to a total of 56 hours, or seven days.

Providing days off is exactly what the government is asking companies to do if their employees catch the flu. An outline posted at recommends that employers “establish policies for employee compensation and sick-leave absences unique to a pandemic.”

Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states, “Regardless of the size of the business or the function or services that you provide, all employers should plan now to allow and encourage sick workers to stay home without fear of losing their jobs.”

Advocates of paid sick leave couldn’t have written it better themselves.

“What they said was tailor-made for passing the Healthy Families Act,” said Lisa Maatz, director of public policy and government relations at the American Association of University Women. “We’re taking advantage of that statement.”

Supporters also are making the case on Capitol Hill that the workers least likely to have paid sick days are those in the food service, child care and health care sectors.

This new outbreak is highlighting the public health risk of so many people not having job-protected paid sick days,” said Steffany Stern, policy coordinator for the work and family team at the National Partnership for Women and Families.

Stern said government flu guidance doesn’t reflect the reality of the workplace. Many employees fear losing their jobs or income if they stay home.

“They’re very fearful of taking time off without pay,” Stern said.

Opponents of the paid-sick-leave bill acknowledge that the public health argument can be compelling. But they point to the economy as a reason not to move forward with the bill, which they say would place a mandate on companies trying to cope with the recession.

“You have to balance [flu concerns] against a pretty tenuous job situation,” said Victoria Lipnic, an attorney and consultant and former assistant secretary of labor for employment standards. “Is this the right time to impose what would be an additional cost on them?”

The legislative calendar is another impediment. Health care and energy reform as well as appropriations bills presumably would all come before paid sick days.

The measure has had a hearing in the House.

But action in the Senate may be further delayed by a change in leadership at the Health Education Pensions and Labor Committee, where Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has taken over from Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, who died in August. Kennedy was the Senate champion of the paid-sick-days bill.

As a practical matter, even if the measure were approved this fall, it would likely take months for the Department of Labor to issue regulations to implement the law.

“Paid sick leave is in no way the answer to the H1N1 scare,” said Lisa Horn, manager of health care at the Society for Human Resource Management. “The Healthy Families Act is the wrong approach at the wrong time.”

In her Capitol Hill meetings, Horn is stressing that the bill could present problems for companies that already provide paid time off. It’s not clear whether PTO days would meet the requirements of the sick-leave bill.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says that more than three-quarters of employees receive some form of paid leave. But advocates for the bill say that about half of private-sector workers lack paid sick days.

SHRM is proposing a safe harbor from federal leave mandates for employers that have paid-time-off programs.

Although talks about that idea have yet to begin in earnest, advocates say that the current version of the paid-sick-days bill was modified from previous iterations to meet corporate concerns. For instance, the time off is now accrued and absences of more than three days require medical certification.

“We’ve been engaging with the business community and listening to what they’re saying,” Stern said.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

Stay informed and connected. Get human resources news and HR features via Workforce Management’s Twitter feed or RSS feeds for mobile devices and news readers

Schedule, engage, and pay your staff in one system with