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Coronavirus Has Revived the Paid Sick Leave Debate

States have been twice as likely to block paid sick leave mandates at the local level as they've been to impose such requirements themselves. That may change.

An empty office.
Starting on Sunday, employers in the city of Pittsburgh will be required to provide workers with paid time off when they are sick or taking care of family members due to illness or injury.

This isn’t a new ordinance passed in response to the novel coronavirus. It was enacted all the way back in 2015, but was held up by legal challenges until the state Supreme Court ruled in Pittsburgh’s favor last year. “People should not be forced into making the tough decision between staying home sick and missing a day’s pay or coming in to work and spreading infection,” Mayor Bill Peduto said in response to the ruling.

For years, paid sick leave has been a dividing line between Democrats, who mostly favor mandates, and Republicans, who oppose them as a burden on employers. Given the current pandemic, there’s heightened interest in the issue at both the federal and state levels. It’s still not certain, however, that any new consensus has formed around the issue.

President Trump has outlined a plan to boost the economy, which includes a payroll tax cut and relief for hourly workers. His proposal helped the stock market regain some lost ground on Tuesday, but did not include mandatory paid sick leave, which congressional Democrats are demanding.

“A mandate comes with a lot of paperwork, a lot of cost, a lot of time,” says Holly Wade, director of research and policy analysis for the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), which advocates for small companies. “Having that on top of dealing with vastly changing economic conditions isn’t helpful.”

Guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call on businesses to “actively encourage sick employees to stay home… Ensure that your sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance and that employees are aware of these policies.”

Multiple members of Congress have announced they are under self-quarantine after interacting with a person who was infected with the novel coronavirus at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Several Florida legislators also attended CPAC and other events with infected persons, leading to a brief self-quarantine on Monday and a thorough cleaning of the House chamber.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if this ignites a fire,” says Alex Baptiste, policy counsel for workplace programs at the National Partnership for Women & Families, which supports paid sick leave mandates. “This is a benefit that people think others already have. It will put pressure on legislators to create this benefit.”

Last week, the grocery chain Trader Joe’s became the first company to temporarily change its policies to guarantee that all its workers, full and part-time and new hires, will be paid for time missed when they are ill. Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden and other chains, announced Monday it will offer all its workers paid sick leave.

“Our state legislature enacted a mandatory sick leave,” says Vermont state Rep. Robin Scheu. “People were dragged kicking and screaming, but thank goodness we have that now.”

On average, private-sector workers earn seven sick days once they’ve been on the job for a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But BLS figures indicate that 29 percent of employers offer no benefit at all. That figure is far higher when it comes to restaurants and other companies in the hospitality sector.

Major tech companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google are encouraging employees to work from home, but not everybody has that option. “The people who don’t have the benefit are the people we’re most likely to come into contact with,” Scheu says.

Due to short sessions this year, it’s already too late for some states to pass legislation, even if they desire to do so. Republican lawmakers, along with some Democrats, remain wary of requiring companies to pay workers who are out sick. In Virginia, new Democratic majorities in the Legislature passed an ambitious slate of progressive legislation this year, but failed to reach agreement on a paid sick leave bill.

It’s clear, however, that even policymakers resistant to mandates hope more employers will come around in response to the current crisis.

“Americans: if you are sick with fever/cough/flu symptoms, please don’t go to work!” U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams tweeted on Sunday. “Employers: PLEASE understand giving your employees flexibility and (paid) sick leave will save you money in the long run- it’s much cheaper than shutting down because everyone else gets sick!”

Since Connecticut became the first state to enact a paid sick leave law back in 2011, a dozen other states have followed suit, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The list includes Arizona and Washington, where voters approved mandates through ballot measures in 2016.

A law passed in Maine last year will take effect in 2021.

"Considering a faster timetable for implementation of the law certainly wouldn't be out of line," says Mike Tipping, communications director for Maine People's Alliance, a nonprofit that supports paid sick leave policies. "As businesses and schools make plans for potential closures and Mainers worry about how they'll keep themselves safe and care for their loved ones, the importance of paid time off has been made abundantly clear."

The details — how much time off is required, the size of companies forced to comply — differ by state. Private employers are also required to provide some form of paid sick leave in 20 cities and three counties.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced last week that the state Department of Labor and Industries will provide workers’ compensation benefits to health-care workers and first responders quarantined after being exposed to the coronavirus on the job.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he will amend his budget proposal, which already called for paid sick leave, to offer more expansive benefits for coronavirus patients. “Their employer should pay them for the period of quarantine and their job should be protected,” Cuomo said.

But 23 states have passed laws blocking local governments from imposing mandates of their own. “One size fits all approaches for these types of mandates are not helpful when you’re looking at a universe of small firms that are very diverse in terms of numbers of employees, seasonality and types of industries,” says Wade, the NFIB research director.

Additional efforts to pre-empt local laws failed last year in Texas and Pennsylvania, but a bill pre-empting local governments from setting their own labor standards, including benefits, is pending in the Florida Legislature. 

“Philadelphia local elected officials are failing their residents by passing local ordinances which are counter productive to economic growth,” Pennsylvania state Rep. Seth Grove, the sponsor of pre-emption legislation, wrote on Facebook in 2018.

In January, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott vetoed a bill that would have required employers to provide paid family and medical leave. Scott rejected the idea of increasing payroll taxes to finance the benefit, calling for a voluntary insurance program instead. “We cannot continue to make the state less affordable for working Vermonters and more difficult for employers to employ them, even for well-intentioned programs like this one,” Scott said.

Should There Be a Mandate?

Advocates of paid sick leave requirements say that they pay off in more than one way. A 2018 study suggested that the flu rate dropped by more than 40 percent in cities that had sick leave laws, compared with cities that didn’t. Other studies indicate that companies often benefit financially due to decreased turnover.

But NFIB and other business groups complain that paid sick leave mandates drive up employer costs. They not only have to pay — and replace — workers who are out sick, but face administrative and compliance costs as well. Those fall more heavily, in relative terms, for small businesses. Even in states with mandates, smaller companies are often exempted. Maine's new law, for instance, does not apply to companies with fewer than 10 workers.

The prospect of a new mandate is troubling for business owners already coping with a plunging stock market and predictions of recession, says Wade of NFIB. “Going forward, once the coronavirus has died down, the outbreaks of it, the mandate will still be there,” she says. “It will continue to be a burden for small business owners to comply with. It’s not helpful for businesses.”

Last week, Georgia House Speaker David Ralston led a group of legislators in support of a paid parental leave bill that would grant paid leave to state employees, including teachers. They could take up to three weeks off with pay following the birth of a child.

The benefit would not extend to private-sector workers, however. “Our goal is not to dictate to the private sector what they should or shouldn’t be doing, because that’s not consistent with what any of us up here believe,” Ralston said at a news conference. “But hopefully they will take inspiration from us.”

Vermont Gov. Scott and neighboring Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire attempted last year to create a bistate insurance risk pool to fund paid family leave. Although the effort didn’t come off, the governors are looking to set up such programs within their separate state borders. Under Scott’s plan, Vermont state employees would receive a paid family leave benefit, forming a pool that businesses and employees could join voluntarily.

“While Gov. Sununu has made it very clear that the people of New Hampshire will never support a mandated income tax, he would support including public health emergencies as a qualifying condition of his voluntary paid family leave plan,” says Ben Vihstadt, the governor’s communications director.

Scheu, a sponsor of the paid family leave law that Scott vetoed, says that’s not nearly good enough. She has an elderly parent and knows that other residents of her state will need to take time off to care for older loved ones who are most at risk from the novel coronavirus.

“Every other developed country in the world has this,” Scheu says. “Frankly, I find it appalling that we could get to this point and we don’t have paid family leave.”

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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