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Sick Leave Tops State Labor Agendas

Now that a majority of states have boosted wages above the federal minimum, lawmakers in at least seven states want to give workers another lift: paid sick days.

Buoyed by overwhelming approval of a San Francisco ballot initiative guaranteeing workers at least nine sick days per year, lawmakers in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Vermont, Maine, Montana, Michigan and Maryland are expected to propose similar measures this year, labor experts say.

In the United States — the only industrialized nation that does not guarantee paid sick days for all workers — businesses voluntarily provide sick days for about half of all workers.

But for the other half - about 59 million workers - missing work because of the flu or a minor injury means lost wages and sometimes a reprimand or dismissal. As a result, many workers show up sick, often spreading illnesses to others, according to workplace expert Jodie Levin-Epstein of the Center for Law and Social Policy.

Proponents of mandatory sick pay argue that letting sick workers skip work without docking their pay would improve workers' health and financial wellbeing, increase workplace productivity and reduce the spread of contagious illnesses.

Opponents say forced sick pay could put some companies out of business. "Most businesses want to offer their employees the best benefits package they can, including sick days," says Ray Keating, chief economist with the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council . But despite their competitive interest in attracting the best workers, some small firms and startups can't afford the cost, he says.

With Congress open for business this week, hiking the minimum wage is getting top billing. But labor committee chairman Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) vow to push mandatory sick pay.

Under Kennedy's bill, the Healthy Families Act, businesses with 15 or more employees would have to give those who work a minimum of 20 hours per week at least seven paid sick days per year. The leave could be used for workers' own health needs or to care for ill or injured family members.

The San Francisco measure and legislative proposals in all seven states also would allow workers to use sick days to care for ailing family members.

Kennedy's bill did not move last session, but backers say the measure has better prospects under the new Democratic congressional leadership. 

Mandatory sick pay was a new and little-known issue last year, overshadowed by efforts to boost the federal minimum wage, says Levin-Epstein. "Now, it's no longer a backwater issue," she said.

Massachusetts lawmakers ran out of time before they could pass a mandatory sick day law last year. Labor experts expect the bill to easily win approval of both the governor and the legislature this year. 

In Madison, Wis., the city counsel last year narrowly defeated a measure similar to San Francisco's. This year, Madison and the state are expected to enact sick day laws.

Although most states legislatures have not yet tackled sick pay, several have enacted a related measure: requiring businesses to let workers use paid leave to care for kids and other ailing family members. 

According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research , only 30 percent of workers with sick pay can use the day off for doctor's appointments or to care for sick kids. As a result, many workers take ill children to day care centers, infecting others.

Maine was the first state to pass a law in 2002, requiring employers that offer sick days to extend the policy to give workers greater flexibility in using their sick days. California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Minnesota, Washington and Wisconsin adopted similar measures.

Supporters of sick pay standards say last year's wave of state minimum wage hikes raised political awareness of workplace issues, making sick pay the logical next step.

"This year we expect to see some real momentum on paid sick days at the state and local level," says Taylor Hatcher of the National Partnership for Women and Families , advocates for sick day standards.

Tags: Labor, Economy