WASHINGTON — Fresh off passage of a sweeping health care overhaul, the Obama administration is supporting legislation to provide mandatory paid sick leave for more than 30 million additional workers who are some of nation's lowest-paid employees.
The Healthy Families Act, sponsored by Sen. Christopher Dodd, and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, both Democrats from Connecticut, would require companies that have 15 or more employees to provide one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked or up to seven sick days a year for a full-time worker.
Both bills — HR 2460/S1152 — are stuck in committee and haven't yet faced a vote. In fact, most legislative action has come at the state and municipal level. In recent years, California, Ohio, Maine and New Jersey have considered bills requiring paid sick leave. San Francisco and Washington, D.C., have passed laws that require it for private-sector employees. New York City is debating a similar measure.
Top Obama administration officials voiced their support for the federal proposal this week in separate appearances with women's and family rights advocates who've gathered in Washington to lobby for the bills.
Groups such as the Institute for Women's Policy Research and the National Partnership for Women and Families say the proposal would provide an overdue measure of economic and workplace justice.
Only 25 percent of low-wage workers have paid sick leave, which makes it a financial hardship for them to get sick and miss work. Those who do stay home to heal or to tend to a family member's illness fear that they could lose their jobs if they miss too many days.
At a briefing Tuesday morning, Terrell McSweeny, domestic policy adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, called the proposal "an issue of middle-class economic security" for struggling families.
Business groups such as the National Federation of Independent Business and the Employment Policies Institute oppose the measure. They say a government mandate on sick leave — especially during the recession — would hurt the very people it's intended to help because employers would offset the cost of the benefit by cutting positions and workers' hours.
"With the labor market still recovering, policymakers should focus on promoting job growth instead of enacting mandates that drive up operating costs and create barriers for entry-level employment." said Michael Saltsman of the Employment Policies Institute.
Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis disagreed.
"Yes, economic times are hard, but right now we have never seen so much productivity on behalf of our work force, so I don't buy that argument," she said. "I think there's something unreasonable about that. In my experience, I know that people will actually be more productive in the workplace when they know that their employer is actually sensitive to what their current needs are."
More than 50 million American workers — nearly 40 percent of the private labor force — don't get paid if they miss work because of illness.
The problem is most pronounced in lower-paying industries such as food service and child care, in which only 27 percent of workers get paid sick leave. A recent report by the Institute for Women's Policy Research estimates that people who came to work while they were sick with the H1N1 virus may have infected 7 million people at the height of the outbreak last year.
After trying to call in sick with the flu several years ago, 23-year-old Megan Sacks of Tacoma, Wash., was told she would have to be "on her deathbed" in order to miss her lunchtime shift as a waitress. After she showed up visibly ill, however, a customer contacted the health department to complain.
Sacks, who didn't have paid sick leave, was kept off the schedule for three weeks and later fired because her boss thought that she'd called the health officials.
"I was really hurt and upset because I thought I was a valued employee," she said. "And to this day I still don't know who called the health department. If I knew, I would have asked them not to, because I lost my job over this."
Sacks has testified about her ordeal before the Washington state legislature. She was among a handful of people in the nation's capitol Tuesday who related similar stories about the lack of paid sick leave.
President Barack Obama first voiced his support for paid sick leave at his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2008. That same day, a study by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found that 77 percent of American workers support the practice.
Philip Derrow, the president of the Ohio Transmission Corp. in Columbus, Ohio, said he didn't like the one-size-fits-all feel of the federal proposal. Derrow got rid of vacation and sick days for his 315 employees and instead provides two weeks of "paid time off" that they can use for vacations, sick leave or other personal reasons. He said most employers would prefer the same flexibility.
"We treat our employees as adults. The very thought that the federal government would force me to ask my adult employees to tell me when they're sick is offensive at every level," Derrow said. "It's none of my business."
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