American workers have some unlikely allies in the fight for paid sick days. California Republican Rep. Mimi Walters has sponsored a bill that would encourage companies to provide 14 to 20 days of paid time off, and big business loves it.
Currently in committee, the bill would also encourage companies to allow for flexible work arrangements like job sharing, or working remotely. On average, companies currently offer 10 days of vacation and 10 days of sick leave per year; the new legislation would lump all days off into one category, which would include sick time, vacation and holidays.
The measure would create a national paid-time off policy for sick days and other personal needs, and businesses that comply would be exempt from tougher state and municipal rules. There are at least 40 different local laws designed to protect workers from being fired or disciplined for trying to follow doctor's orders. About one-third of U.S. workers get paid sick days, either because local law requires it or their company offers it voluntarily.
"The problem really is the maze of state and local laws out there," said Mark Wilson, chief economist at the HR Policy Association, the public-policy advocacy group for human resources executives at large U.S. companies, and a supporter of the bill. "The laws are becoming more and more difficult for large employers to comply with on a cost-effective basis."
San Francisco passed the first local paid sick day law in 2006. Connecticut passed the first state law in 2011. California and six other states have followed, with Rhode Island adding a law this year. New Jersey alone has 13 different local rules.
Most of the current local laws give employees the right to request sick days without notice, and employers can almost never deny them. The new federal legislation would allow managers to reject workers' requests for time off.
Opponents say that's a cruiser-sized loophole. Weakening that protection is "dangerous and deceptive," said Ellen Bravo, director of the Family Values @ Work consortium, a network of state coalitions advocating for paid sick days and family leave for all workers. "The employer might say, 'It's inconvenient, you can't take it. I need you to reschedule that chemo or reschedule that kid's doctor appointment.'"
The Society of Human Resources, an association for HR professionals, helped design the bill, and it says abuse won't be tolerated. Any company that violated the sick day rules would end up back under the jurisdiction of the state laws they are trying to avoid. Oversight would come under the same law that currently guides voluntary employer health care and retirement benefits.
"There will be times when an employer says, 'Sorry, you can't use the leave today' because of the time the request happens, or it's a busy time of the year," said Mike Aitken, vice president of government affairs at SHRM. "We think the instances in which leave will be denied will be few."
The bill is supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, and the Association of Women Business Owners and opposed by the National Partnership for Women & Families, Momsrising and the American Sustainable Business Council, among others. Both sides agree that national rules would finally encourage more businesses to offer the benefit to part-time workers.