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Employees need more choices and employers need more predictability in a federal leave policy, Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Chief Operating Officer China Miner Gorman told a congressional subcommittee considering a new employer mandate on paid sick leave at a June 11, 2009, hearing in Washington, D.C.
“A government-mandated approach to providing leave is a clear example of what won’t work—particularly during a time of economic crisis,” said Gorman, speaking before the Workforce Protections Subcommittee of the House Committee on Education & Labor. Proposed legislation to require up to 56 hours of paid sick leave for full-time employees would impose tough financial and administrative burdens on recession-impacted employers and “could lead to additional job loss or cuts in other important benefits,” she stated.
In a contentious hearing before a standing-room-only crowd on Capitol Hill, Gorman and former U.S. Department of Labor official Victoria Lipnic said that many U.S. employers provide various forms of paid leave voluntarily to their workers and will continue to do so. They said a “one-size-fits-all mandate” would do more harm than good.
However, other speakers, and the subcommittee’s chair, Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., said the voluntary system of paid leave has forced many Americans to go to work sick because they do not have paid leave and cannot afford to lose income.
“This is putting a stress on working families,” said Woolsey. “We cannot afford to wait” to pass legislation imposing a mandate.
“Our failure to guarantee a minimum standard of paid sick days is a significant public health concern, as we witnessed during the H1N1 virus outbreak,” added Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women. “Many of the workers who interact with the public every day are among the least likely to have paid sick days.”
However, Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., the ranking minority member of the subcommittee, said that he welcomed SHRM’s approach to the issue and that the Healthy Families Act would be a costly mistake. “We are gravely concerned with the impact this legislation will have on the U.S. economy, employers, workers and job creation,” he stated. “It represents the intrusion of the federal government into the benefits policies of millions of companies, large and small.”
At issue were the Healthy Families Act, H.R. 2460, and the Family Income to Respond to Significant Transitions (FIRST) Act, H.R. 2339. H.R. 2460 would guarantee workers one hour of paid leave for each 30 hours worked and would allow full- and part-time employees to accrue up to 56 hours of leave, or seven paid sick days, per year. Workers would be able to use the sick days when they or immediate family members became ill.
H.R. 2339 would allow parents of a new infant or newly adopted child to receive partial income, funded by monies set aside for unemployment insurance benefits. Critics of H.R. 2339 said it would be risky to divert jobless funds to provide payments to families using leave under the measure. However, the subcommittee hearing focused primarily on the proposed paid-sick-leave mandate.
“It’s a basic matter of right and wrong,” testified Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., author of the Healthy Families Act, who added that the United States is one of the few nations in the world that does not guarantee paid sick leave.
Woolsey, a onetime HR professional, claimed that research showed that only 8 percent of American workers have access to paid family leave and challenged Gorman to explain why the figure was so low. Gorman noted that employers of the vast majority of SHRM’s 250,000 members provide some form of paid time off. She noted that both SHRM’s own research and data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that a high percentage of workers currently have access to paid sick leave. Gorman also stated that one impediment to better leave policies is a patchwork of recent laws and regulations based on “an industrial age workforce that no longer exists.”
“All employers should be encouraged to provide paid leave,” added Gorman. But rather than mandating and micro-managing the details of the leave, which would have different impacts on different employers, a federal leave policy should “let employees decide how to use it.”
She said H.R. 2460, which “prescribes a series of vague and ill-defined qualifying events that may trigger leave eligibility for the employee,” would disrupt current paid leave offerings and could force employers to cut wages or other benefits to pay for the leave mandate.
Gorman outlined SHRM’s principles for a 21st century workplace flexibility policy:
·Shared Needs. Encourage employers to provide a specified number of paid leave days for employees to use for any purpose, and provide employers a “safe harbor” from unnecessary regulation.
·Employee Leave. Require employers to create a plan document showing how employees can use leave for illness, vacation, and personal and family needs.
·Flexibility. Maximum flexibility should be permitted for employers and for employees.
·Scalability. Allow leave benefits to be scaled to the number of employees at an organization.
·Flexible Work Options. Laws should be amended to facilitate options such as telecommuting, flextime, job sharing and compressed or reduced schedules.
“It’s time to pursue a new approach to this issue absent of rigid, unworkable mandates,” said Gorman in concluding her remarks. “It’s time to give employees greater flexibility and to give employers more predictability. It’s time to encourage paid leave—without stifling existing innovative benefits or hindering job creation.”
A webcast from the hearing can be viewed at the committee’s web site.
Steve Bates is manager of online editorial content for SHRM. He can be reached at email@example.com.
SHRM Seeks to Change Debate on Paid Leave Policies, Inside SHRM, May 11, 2009
Workplace Flexibility Report Adds to National Debate, HR News, May 14, 2009
Bill Would Mandate Paid Sick Leave; HR News, May 9, 2009
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