Eileen Appelbaum and Ruth Milkman
October 17, 2014, Philadelphia Inquirer
As Philadelphia, other cities, and some states across the country consider a paid-sick-days law, we hear a familiar "sky is falling" refrain from corporate lobbyists. Some of these advocates have even moved state legislators to try to sneak in an amendment to keep Philly and other cities from being able to make their own decisions.
But the evidence is clear: Policies on paid sick days impose only modest costs on businesses, and most employers report few or no negative effects once a policy is implemented.
Workers without paid sick days often are forced to choose between a day's pay and attending to their own health or that of a sick family member. Those least likely to have paid sick days are also those least able to afford to take an unpaid day off. That means going to work sick, lowering productivity and posing a health risk to coworkers and customers, or losing income that would go right back into the economy.
The public overwhelmingly supports paid-sick-days laws, and many cities and states have been passing them - most recently, California's, which will enable 6.5 million more workers in the state to earn paid sick days. In addition to statewide legislation there and in Connecticut, 13 cities have similar laws. Massachusetts has an earned-sick-days initiative on the ballot in the November election, and legislation is under consideration in six other states.
Corporate lobbyists and some business owners continue to express concern about how these measures might affect their bottom lines. Will they be driven out of business? Will employees abuse the law? But as a series of academically rigorous studies of employers' experiences with paid sick days now documents, these fears have little basis in reality.
The fear that a paid-sick-days law will lead workers to abuse the benefit has turned out to be unfounded. Studies consistently show that workers use fewer days than the maximum allowed. A year and a half after the Connecticut program went into effect, employers reported that a third of their covered employees on average had not used a single paid sick day in the previous 12 months, and those who did used just half the days they had earned. In San Francisco, which was the first city to pass a paid-sick-days law, and which also has the most extensive such program, employers also reported that workers use fewer days than are available to them.
Employers typically cover the work of an employee who is out sick by asking other employees to pick up the slack, allowing employees to swap shifts, or by putting work on hold - none of which increases business costs. Of course, there are instances when employees are asked to work overtime or others are called in, but this turns out to be relatively rare. In fact, most employers report that the new paid-sick-days laws have had minimal or no effects on their bottom lines.
In Connecticut, 77 percent of employers reported no cost increases or a modest one-time increase of 2 percent or less of payroll. An additional 12 percent said that the increase was so small that it was not worth tracking. The San Francisco study found that most employers reported that the paid-sick-days ordinance had no effect on profitability.
Groups like the National Restaurant Association consistently and vociferously oppose paid-sick-days legislation. They predicted gloom and doom in Connecticut, for example, after that state passed its law. But the Department of Labor reports that since its passage in 2011, employment has grown in Connecticut's leisure and hospitality industry and in education and health services, the sectors most affected by the new law.Business opposition to paid sick days often evaporates once cities and states have had experience with the legislation. Most employers - three-fourths in Connecticut, 70 percent in Seattle, and two-thirds in San Francisco - indicated that they were "very supportive" or "somewhat supportive" of paid-sick-leave laws a year or two after implementation.
For example, Kevin Westlye, the Golden Gate Restaurant Association's executive director and one of the most vocal opponents of the San Francisco bill, changed his view once the law was in operation. He called it "the best public policy for the least cost. Do you want your server coughing over your food?"We agree. Paid-sick-days laws are good for public health, for working families, and for local economies - with minimal effects on businesses' bottom lines.
Eileen Appelbaum is a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
Ruth Millkman is a professor of sociology at the City University of New York Graduate Center.