Flu flurry may boost bid for paid sick leave

Published: Monday, May 4, 2009
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

With concerns about swine flu ratcheting up across the country, officials, from local health directors to President Obama, have been issuing the same message: If you or your child develop flu-like symptoms, stay home and avoid contact with others.

In Connecticut, labor advocates are hoping that message will hit home in their push to pass legislation requiring companies with more than 50 workers to provide paid sick leave.

The bill, HB-6187, has already passed two House committees and may come up for a vote in the Appropriations Committee Thursday.

After several years in which similar legislation passed the state Senate but was not taken up in the House of Representatives, proponents are hoping that the bill will make it to the House floor this year.

Jon Green, director of Connecticut Working Families, which is backing the legislation, said the swine flu scare highlights the importance of paid sick leave.

“The fact that there’s a flu epidemic in the world right now certainly raises the awareness and heightens the urgency of the issue,” Green said. “In fact, the people who have the least ability to stay home when they’re sick are often people whose jobs cause them to come in contact with the public and particularly with vulnerable populations, (such as) home health care workers, bus drivers, food service (workers).”

Connecticut health officials are advising anyone with symptoms, including fever, coughing and a sore throat, to stay home from school or work for at least seven days, waiting to return until one to two days after they are feeling better, according to an overview on swine flu posted on the state Department of Public Health’s Web site.

In the state, about 70 percent of full-time employees and 27 percent of part-time employees are offered paid sick leave through their jobs, according to a 2006 report from the state Department of Labor. The figure was much lower for part-time employees in the accommodations and food services industry, the report said.

The proposed legislation would allow employees to build up paid sick days at a rate of one hour for every 40 hours worked, up to 52 hours or 6 1/2 days per year. The sick days would become available 120 days after the start of employment. Employees would be allowed to use the leave to care for their own or a child’s physical and mental health, as well as for when the employee is a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault.

“It’s the type of policy that as people learn more about it and really understand all the implications, it becomes increasingly clear that there are significant public benefits that really do outweigh the relatively minor costs that may be associated with the bill,” Green said. “It reduces the likelihood of people going to work when they’re sick, and there’s lots of bad things that happen when people go to work when they’re sick.”

Green cited the risk to co-workers’ and customers’ health as costs that can be incurred through “presenteeism,” a term for employees working despite being sick.

But the Connecticut Business and Industry Association believes that the costs to business if the legislation passes would not be minor. On its Web site, the association calls the bill “anti-business” and estimates that the legislation would cost a business with 50 employees about $26,000 a year.

Kia Murrell, associate counsel for CBIA, called the proposal “extremely harmful to Connecticut businesses,” as it would make the state the only one in the nation with a sick leave mandate.

“No other state has this and for the most part the reason is because everybody recognizes that it will make the businesses in their state uncompetitive,” Murrell said. “Now that’s particularly problematic at a time like right now where even some of the most stable and viable businesses are struggling to compete, but particularly in Connecticut because our costs were already high even before the recent economic downturn.”

Murrell said that the “one-size-fits-all” bill could cause some employers to cut other benefits in order to offer sick leave.

According to the legislation, companies would be in compliance with the law if they offer paid leave other than vacation days that could be used for the same purposes as sick leave.

Scott Macdonald, a labor relations and employment lawyer and human resources consultant with the Human Resource Consortium in New Haven, said that some calculations about the cost per hour of providing sick leave do not take into account the costs to businesses from employees working while sick.

“All the studies that I have found through my research and all of my experience consulting with employers indicate that providing paid sick leave is actually good for business from the perspective of bottom-line success, productivity and lower turnover, enhanced employee morale and engagement,” Macdonald said. “It actually ends up costing the company less money than the cost of people coming to work sick and getting other people sick.”

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