6 Questions to Ask When Creating a Paid-Sick-Leave Policy

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CHICAGO—Paid sick leave has changed from an employment perk to a mandate in a growing number of jurisdictions, and each law has its own nuances. Compliance problems abound, particularly for employers in multiple jurisdictions.

"You have to look at the specific laws that affect your employees because each one is different," said Beth Baerman, director of communications and compliance at Michigan-based Attendance Demand Inc. She was speaking at a concurrent session Monday at the SHRM 2018 Annual Conference & Exposition.

Annual Conference attendee Christine Sanchez said that, as an HR business partner, she has to know a little bit about everything. She works for Southern California Edison in Rosemead. To her, the biggest challenge in California is that the laws are unique and always changing. It's important to stay up-to-date on new compliance requirements, she said.

Paid-sick-leave laws are especially complicated for California HR professionals, because employers must comply with a statewide law and may also be covered by local and industry-specific rules.

[SHRM members-only resource: Leave Laws by State and Municipality]

Here are some questions HR professionals should consider when creating paid-sick-leave policies and procedures.

1. Is my business covered?

Ten states—Arizona, California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington—have passed paid-sick-leave laws, though some have yet to take effect. Washington, D.C., and a number of other cities also have their own requirements.

These laws generally cover most employers, but some exempt very small businesses, employers in certain industries or employees who are covered under collective bargaining agreements that meet certain requirements.

2. Which employees are eligible?

Under most laws, employees begin accruing paid time off immediately upon hire. In many jurisdictions, however, employers don't have to allow employees to use the time right away. For example, in California, employees aren't entitled to use sick leave until the 90th calendar day after employment begins.

Rules also vary on how much time employees must spend in a jurisdiction before they are covered. If employees work in one location all of the time, this isn't an issue, Baerman said. However, compliance can be a challenge for employers that have workers who travel, because the eligibility is based on where the employee is performing the work.

For example, in California, employees are eligible for paid sick leave when they work in California for the same employer for at least 30 days over the course of a year.

3. Who is a "family member" under paid-sick-leave laws?

Workers can typically use paid sick leave to care for themselves or a family member—but the definition of "family member" isn't consistent from place to place. Children, spouses, parents, grandparents and siblings are usually covered. Some laws cover domestic partners and their kin. Los Angeles broadly covers anyone who has a close association with the worker.

"If you have no family, it's nice to know someone can take time off to care for you," Baerman said, but she also recognized that it can be difficult for employers to manage broad leave coverage.

Before creating a policy, HR professionals should note that family may not be limited to humans. In Emeryville, Calif., workers can take paid sick leave to care for service dogs.

4. What is safe time?

Many laws also cover "safe" time. Safe time generally refers to time off related to domestic violence, sexual abuse or stalking. In some jurisdictions, safe time is only covered if the employee is a victim. In other jurisdictions, leave for safe time also covers the employee's child and may cover more family members.

5. How much paid time off must be provided?

Employers need to carefully review the rules on accrual rates, caps and carryovers. The laws also vary on how much time employees may use in one year.

Employees in California accrue one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. Accruals carry over to the next year, but employees aren't entitled to use more than 24 hours (or three days) of paid sick leave per year. In Washington, employees accrue one hour for every 40 hours worked, and employees must be allowed to carry over up to 40 hours of accrued time from one year to the next.

"Many of these laws allow you, as an employer, to frontload the time," Baerman said. In California, for instance, employers that provide the full 24 hours (or three days) of paid sick leave at the beginning of each year don't have to allow employees to carry over any remaining balance from one year to the next.

6. Does more than one law apply?

Some employees are covered by more than one law. For example, an employee at a large hotel in the city of Los Angeles might be covered by state, city and hotel-industry rules. Federal contractors are also covered by special rules, Baerman noted. 

When aspects of these laws differ, employers should apply the rule that is most generous to the employee.

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