Mandatory sick days gaining strength

A sick woman sneezes

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KAI RYSSDAL: We've had a bug going around the office here at Marketplace for a month or so now. It's one of those really stubborn ones that just won't go away. Which means some of us have been taking advantage of a benefit we don't really think much about. Getting paid to stay home when we've got the sniffles. But maybe we ought to. Because the Department of Labor says more than 40 percent of private-sector workers don't get paid sick leave. Most of that 40 percent works in service jobs like restaurants or retail. Cities and a handful of states are considering legislation to make paid sick days mandatory. There's federal legislation pending, too. And businesses in Washington, D.C. are bracing for a city council vote next month. Shia Levitt reports.


Shia Levitt: Pedro Alfonso has run Dynamic Concepts, a small telecom firm, for three decades. He says he already provides competitive benefits, including paid sick leave, vacation time, and a 401K plan. This works just fine, he says. But the new legislation would increase the amount of paid sick time he gives. And it would apply to many of his part-time or seasonal employees, who make up almost a third of his workforce and don't get paid sick leave now.

Pedro Alfonso: There's the increased cost associated with paying these employees. There's the burden of actually tracking part-time employees.

Alfonso would have to design new payroll procedures and pay for new software. All these changes together will cost money.

Alfonso: The costs associated with this could be anywhere from $500 to $1,000 per employee. Multiply it times 80 or 100 employees, it's a substantial cost that has to be allocated from some other aspect of the business, either other benefits, from profits, from 401K plans....

He says many businesses would also have to figure out how much time each employee works in D.C. as opposed to Maryland or Virginia. If, say, an employee spends half his or her time in D.C., then only that time accrues paid sick leave. But advocates say the measure would also bring benefits: less spreading of illness, faster recovery time, and greater productivity.

Ed Lazere runs D.C.'s Fiscal Policy Institute.

Ed Lazere: Our conclusion is that the cost to business is relatively modest, but that the benefits to business are likely to be in the same range, and really offset the costs for most businesses.

Karen Kerrigan heads up the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council. She says many places considering these new policies already rank poorly in terms of business friendliness. That includes Maine, Massachusetts and D.C. She says they already have high taxes, fees, and mandated worker benefits.

Karen Kerrigan: The paid sick mandate would just be another cost, would be piling on, if you will, to these existing costs that add to a poorer business climate in these states.

Maine Senate President Beth Edmonds, whose state may vote on its own paid sick leave in coming weeks, says more state and local lawmakers are pushing their own measures because congressional leaders have been dragging their feet. Edmonds says a federal bill would be better.

Beth Edmonds: It would be really great if the federal government had a position on this because it would allow businesses to feel like they were able to give this benefit, which many of them want to give, without negatively impacting them, vis-a-vis competition.

Congressional efforts to mandate national paid sick days began in 2004, but have so far stalled.

In Washington, I'm Shia Levitt for Marketplace.

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