The Hill, February 12, 2015
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The Healthy Families Act was introduced in Congress today by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). Once again, Congress has the opportunity to pass legislation that will expand access to earned paid sick days to all workers. There is reason to think that this time Congress will act.
Much has changed in the decade since the Healthy Families Act was first proposed. The public has learned, to its dismay, that more than one-third of all private-sector workers — about 43 million employees — do not have even one paid sick day to use when they or their children are ill. In food service and hotels, the overwhelming majority — three out of four workers — are without any paid sick leave. Not surprisingly, nearly two-thirds of restaurant workers report having cooked or served food while sick. Awareness that so many workers lack access to any paid sick days has translated into widespread support for legislation to remedy this situation. Polls find that large majorities of Americans across the political spectrum now favor requiring companies to allow workers to earn sick leave. This support has translated into legislation. Since 2004, when the Healthy Families Act was first introduced in Congress, three states (Connecticut in 2011, and California and Massachusetts in 2014) and 16 cities (including San Francisco in 2006; Washington in 2008; and more recently Seattle; Portland, Ore.; New York; Newark, N.J.; Jersey City, N.J.; San Diego; Eugene, Ore.; and Oakland, Calif.; among others) have passed paid sick days laws.
Research has shown that concerns about the effects of paid sick days legislation on businesses were unwarranted. Surveys of employers in San Francisco, Seattle and Connecticut have shown that employers' fears that workers will take advantage of such laws, using every one of their paid sick days and taking time off when they aren't sick, are misplaced. In Connecticut, for example, employers reported that nearly one-third of their eligible employees used none of their earned sick days during the previous year; on average, Connecticut workers used four paid sick days — less than the total number available.
The Connecticut study also found that, for most Connecticut employers, the one-time increase in payroll costs (typically half or less of a business's total costs) was modest. About two-thirds reported that implementing a paid sick leave program either did not increase their payroll costs (47 percent of employers) or increased them by 2 percent or less (30 percent of employers); only 11 percent reported more than a 2 percent increase in payroll costs. The rest did not find it worthwhile to track.
Moreover, two years after workers began earning sick leave, more than three-quarters of Connecticut employers reported that they were somewhat or very supportive of the law.
Meanwhile, employers have become increasingly aware of the business costs of not allowing employees to earn paid sick leave. Workers who show up sick at their job are less productive and may spread colds and flu to coworkers and customers. The spread of seasonal flus due to a lack of paid sick days costs U.S. businesses $10.4 billion every year. Paid sick days reduces the risk of an outbreak of illness in the workplace, allows workers to recover more quickly and be more productive when they return to work, and reduces turnover and the costs associated with searching for, and training, new workers.
As momentum increases and paid sick days laws pass at state and local levels, employers face a challenging array of requirements that vary in the number of hours it takes a worker to earn an hour of sick leave, in the purposes for which earned sick leave can be used and in who is covered by the sick leave legislation. The Healthy Families Act, which would allow workers to earn one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours worked up to seven days of paid sick time a year, would make it easier for employers to comply by creating a single national standard.
Paid sick leave has bipartisan support among voters, who see it as a family values issue. President Obama has made the ability to earn paid sick days a cornerstone of strengthening working families. Politicians like Gov. Daniel Malloy (D) in Connecticut and Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) in New York City won office by campaigning on the issue. Voters have made it clear that they care about what happens to working families. Experience with state and local laws shows that fears about the effects on employers have turned out to be unwarranted. The national conversation has changed; Republicans in Congress may be wary of conceding paid sick days to the Democrats as a national campaign issue in 2016.
Perhaps this time Congress will pass the Healthy Families Act.