Paid Sick Leave Discussion Continues on Capitol Hill

By Beth Mirza Nov 23, 2009
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Congress continued gathering information on proposals for mandatory paid sick leave, hearing more testimony from an employer arguing against federally required paid leave and public health and family-oriented organizations urging Congress to pass legislation quickly.

A. Bruce Clarke, J.D., president and CEO of Capital Associated Industries (CAI) of North Carolina, testified Nov. 17, 2009,before the House Education and Labor Committee on two pieces of proposed legislation before Congress: The Healthy Families Act (S.1152), which would require businesses with more than 15 employees to provide workers with up to seven paid sick days a year to care for themselves or a sick child or spouse, and the Emergency Influenza Containment Act (H.R. 3991), temporary legislation that would guarantee up to five paid sick days for a worker sent home or directed to stay home by an employer for a contagious illness, such as the H1N1 flu virus.

CAI is a nonprofit association of 1,000 North Carolina employers. In surveying his association’s membership, Clarke testified, he found that employers are finding creative and effective ways to help sick employees stay home and still earn their day’s wage. Paid-time-off banks are popular, he said, as is allowing employees to use vacation days as sick days or allowing them to make up the hours with additional shifts. To fight the spread of H1N1 influenza, employers are using telecommuting and job sharing and they are waiving notice requirements and forgiving absences. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than 60 million Americans will be affected by H1N1 flu by the end of 2009.

“These types of creative approaches are the result of flexibility that employers have to develop policies that best fit their workforce needs. Any proposal that mandates the type of leave that employers must provide will ultimately threaten overall levels and types of responses employers are engaged in,” Clarke testified.

However, another witness before the committee, Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, said that the Healthy Families Act was crafted so that businesses that already have a policy that allows employees to take sick leave would not be mandated to provide more sick leave.

Clarke said that an incentive-based system, rather than a mandatory system, would be more preferable to employers.

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., senior Republican on the committee, asked in his opening comments whether such a mandate was necessary, given that, by some accounts, most Americans have access to paid sick leave in one form or another.

“We should know that in 2008, nearly all full-time employees in the United States—fully 93 percent—had access to paid sick leave. A majority of part-time workers have paid sick leave as well,” Kline said.

However, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the committee, pointed out that the CDC estimates that an employee infected with the flu virus who reports to work will infect 10 percent of his co-workers. The CDC’s advice to employees is to stay home when sick, and to employers, allow workers to be absent without fear of losing their jobs, he reiterated. However, he noted, more than 50 million workers do not have paid sick leave.

Clarke’s testimony came on the heels of a hearing held the week before, in which Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) member Elissa O’Brien, SPHR, testified before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Speaking on behalf of SHRM, O’Brien urged Congress not to pass a “one-size-fits-all” mandate for all employers.

However, testifying before the House committee, Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said, “This legislation can be a win-win for public health and business. Employers don’t want sick people in the workplace, and sick people don’t want to be at work. But [currently] people are incentivized to come to work sick.”

Beth Mirza is senior editor for HR News. She can be reached at

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