With the recent adoption of paid sick leave in San Diego and Chicago, similar but inconsistent paid sick day laws will soon be in place in 34 jurisdictions across the U.S. including five states, 28 cities and one county.

As part of a counter-trend, however, pre-emptive legislation banning local governments from passing paid sick leave laws were enacted by North Carolina and Arizona, They join the ranks of at least 12 other states that already have such laws.

[Image credit: Getty Images]
[Image credit: Getty Images]

With more than 43 million private sector workers unable to earn a single sick day, the importance of paid sick days to employees cannot be overstated. So says Sarah Fleisch Fink, senior policy counsel for workplace programs at the National Partnership for Women and Families (NPWF), who notes that the absence of paid sick leave is a two-fold problem.

“It’s not just that workers do not have paid time to care for themselves or their families when they are sick,” she says. “Twenty-three percent of adults in the U.S. have been threatened with job loss or actually lost a job for take an unpaid sick day.”

Fink believes there has been such great momentum at the municipal level because so many states haven’t yet taken action to enact statewide standards.

“We’ve seen paid sick leave endorsed in California, Vermont, Massachusetts, Oregon and Connecticut but in other states like New Jersey and New York, cities want to protect their own workers while at the same time offering local public health protection by having paid sick day standards in place,” she says.

Chicago mayor overcomes opposition

Support for paid sick leave has traditionally come from broad coalitions of workers, unions, women’s groups, teachers, physicians and advocates for racial and LBGT rights. “Opposition is typically from organizations representing big business who say the same thing about paid sick time that we’ve heard about other employment standards over time,” Fink says.

In fact, several months ago when Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel endorsed proposals for up to five earned sick days per year in his city, he was vehemently opposed by the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce and the Illinois Retail Merchants Association.

Arguing against the premise that paid sick leave will save businesses money, lower turnover costs and prevent the spread of disease, a joint counter-report cited the Chipotle case in Massachusetts, where even though there are paid sick leave laws, a sick employee still came in to work and 80 Boston College students became ill with norovirus.

Nevertheless, in late June Chicago city council passed an ordinance expanding paid sick leave to more than 460,000 Chicago workers by a vote of 48-0. A press release issued by the Mayor’s office describes the new rules as more business-friendly than sick leave ordinances adopted by other cities, with a nominal cost to employers.

“A cost model developed by the Civic Consulting Alliance found that this framework will lead to a less than 0.7-1.5% increase in labor costs for most employers,” Emmanuel wrote.

California employers reconcile different rules

But with both state legislation and ordinances in six cities including San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, California employers with multiple locations throughout the state face a particular challenge reconciling subtly different rules.

Annie Macaleer, an employment attorney with the San Diego office of Procopio, Cory, Hargreaves & Savitch LLP, says there is an extreme level of frustration among her clients who conduct business across California because state and local legislators didn’t opt for greater uniformity. “If one city or county wants to offer a higher benefit to employees who work within that jurisdiction, that makes sense, but don’t put in all these different nuances that make standardized practice almost impossible,” she says.

For example, Macaleer notes that recent amendments to the Los Angeles ordinance have increased mandated annual sick leave to 48 hours per year, but the California state law only provides 24 hours or three days of paid sick leave in a 12-month period on either an accrued or annual allotment basis. However, under the San Diego ordinance employers must grant 40 hours of paid sick leave a year but on an accrual basis only. An annual allotment at the beginning of the year is no longer permitted.

“I don’t agree with it, but apparently San Diego’s rationale is that they don’t trust employees to budget their time. If the full amount is allotted Jan. 1 they believe employees will go through it very quickly,” Macaleer says.

Macaleer explains that California’s cacophony of paid sick leave rules makes administration particularly challenging in cases where employees don’t work from a single location. “I have a client with employees who are private investigators who don’t have assigned work sites. They work all over the state,” she says. “So, if an employee lives in Orange County (covered by state law) and does a job in San Diego for 10 hours, the company has to track the employee’s sick leave eligibility under both sets of rules.”

Fourteen states enact pre-emptive legislation

And in spite of the tsunami of local and statewide paid sick leave provisions in recent years, the news is not all good. Willis Towers Watson reports that as part of a counter-trend, North Carolina and Arizona recently enacted pre-emptive legislation banning local governments from passing paid sick leave laws, joining the ranks of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Oregon that have similar laws.

Also in 2011, Wisconsin enacted legislation that bars cities, villages and counties from enacting family and medical leave rules that deviate from state standards, which effectively eliminated Milwaukee’s paid sick leave ordinance.

“We think that laws that interfere with local control of employment laws are stripping communities of the right to improve upon state law, which is not the role of state government, so the NPWF is working towards a national solution,” Fink says. “We hope to see progress in the next couple of years on the federal Healthy Families Act that would allow virtually all American workers to earn up to seven paid sick days a year.”

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