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Congress to Consider Emergency Paid Leave Bill

By Bill Leonard  11/5/2009
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In response to the outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus, U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., introduced emergency legislation (H.R. 3991) that would provide five paid sick days to workers with contagious diseases who are told by their employers to stay home.

Miller, who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, told reporters that the legislation was needed to help stop the spread of the expanding H1N1 pandemic. To emphasize that point, Miller named the proposal the Emergency Influenza Containment Act.

“Sick workers advised to stay home by their employers shouldn’t have to choose between their livelihood, and their co-workers’ or customers’ health,” Miller said. “This will not only protect employees, but it will save employers money by ensuring that sick employees don’t spread infection to co-workers and customers, and will relieve the financial burden on our health system swamped by those suffering from H1N1.”

By tying it to government efforts to quell the flu outbreak, the legislation could gain traction and might be approved by the House of Representatives soon, according to sources familiar with the issue. Miller said it was important to pass the bill quickly. The Education and Labor Committee will hold a hearing on the legislation on Nov. 16, 2009.

Under the proposal, workers would be given five paid sick days if their employers sent them home or advised them to stay home due to a contagious illness—such as the flu. By leaving it up to the employer’s discretion, supporters of the bill hoped to sidestep issues that have bogged down and stalled other paid-leave proposals in Congress. In May, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., introduced bills (S. 1152, H.R. 2460) that would provide seven paid sick days to workers at businesses with 15 or more employees. Kennedy’s and DeLauro’s proposals remain stalled in committees.

Miller’s bill also has the 15-employee threshold but would be temporary and would expire two years after taking effect. Employers and business groups that oppose Kennedy and DeLauro’s proposals were analyzing Miller’s emergency legislation and declined to comment on the proposal.

Miller and other supporters of the bill were careful to point out that the bill would not require employers to offer paid leave to their workers. However, if the employer advised the worker to stay home because they were ill, then the worker would be entitled to up to five days of paid leave.

Several articles and recent reports have highlighted the fact that many workers face a tough choice of not being paid or coming to work sick. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that a sick employee reporting to work could infect at least 10 percent of the people with whom he or she has contact.

Miller pointed to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that showed 39 percent of all private-sector workers or nearly 40 million workers in the U.S. did not have paid sick days—and that many of those workers were employed by restaurants, hotels and school cafeterias.

Miller’s proposal would apply to businesses with 15 or more employees. Under the proposed legislation, workers who follow their employer’s direction to stay home because of contagious illness cannot be fired, disciplined or retaliated against for staying home. The measure would take effect 15 days after being signed and would expire after two years.

“We would like to move it to the House floor as soon as possible,” Miller said during a news briefing. “The influenza isn’t going to wait for the legislative calendar.”

The bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., who chairs the House Workforce Protections Subcommittee.

“This bill will ensure that workers who are directed to stay home by their employers can do so without paying a financial penalty,” Woolsey said.

Bill Leonard is senior writer for SHRM.

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