The U.S. ranks among the 13% of countries who do not mandate paid sick leave despite the fact that Americans work longer hours and have more stress-related illnesses than their European and Japanese counterparts. While the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) does prohibit penalties for people who take time off to care for a sick/new family member, it doesn’t guarantee the time will be paid. With cities passing their own paid sick leave ordinances while states push back and states passing laws despite the federal position, the debate rages on.
What do proponents of paid sick leave say?
1. Employees with paid sick leave take better care of their health
Financial concerns loom for those without paid sick leave, but when workers have paid leave they are more likely to get annual physicals and take preventative measures such as flu shots and mammograms. In short, workers with more paid sick leave are more likely to take care of their health.
2. It protects workers
Clearly not having to miss wages due to a bad case of the flu is beneficial for the worker herself, but some say benefits cascade from there. The workers left in the office stay healthier too because people aren’t as likely to bring their germs into work to share more liberally than holiday fruit baskets.
3. It’s good for employers
It may seem counterintuitive, but some estimates say one of the biggest beneficiaries of mandatory paid sick leave is employers themselves. That’s because offering a solid paid sick leave policy may actually lead to fewer absences and higher productivity. When workers take the time to recover, they can also get back in the game quicker and be more effective. They also argue that people with space to care for their physical and mental health are better employees. Some argue that if workers had more sick leave days, they wouldn’t be quite as likely to come to work sick in order to protect those coveted vacation days.
4. Mental health is an important consideration, too
Eliminating mental health stigma and allowing mental health days into the equation may make people less likely to lie about why they’re taking a day off. An employee on the verge of burnout could simply say, “If I don’t get a little distance from things in the office, I’m not going to be able to do my best work. This job is important to me and the team deserves my best.” Surely that’s preferable to an oddly specific description of their employee’s digestive issues and better for team morale and productivity, too.
What do opponents of paid sick leave say?
1. People abuse it
They’re sick all right…sick of working. Employees misuse paid sick leave with little remorse, using it to go to the Renaissance Fair or on a vacation. Such abuse, which Oregon describes as “repeated use of unscheduled sick time on or adjacent to weekends, holidays, vacation, or pay day, regardless of the number of consecutive days,” may be rampant. Judging by these related searches that came up when I googled “fake sick days,” this is an entirely legitimate concern. Some people approach their excuses with the discipline of a competitive sport.
2. It violates business rights and economic success
It should be up to companies to decide how to take care of their employees. Not only is it unfair and debatably illegal to require companies to provide paid sick leave, it can be damaging to businesses, which are at the heart of a state’s economic success. Tracking sick leave is an expensive, complex process. That cost may also get passed on in the form of more expensive goods or services. A better alternative Lisa Horn, director of congressional affairs for the Society for Human Resource Management, says, is a pre-emption bill. The idea is to set a minimum to the voluntary amount of paid sick leave employers could offer. When met, companies would be exempt from local or state mandates. Horn argues that this would eliminate some of the administrative headaches and lessen the burden of such mandates, which vary from state to state and city to city.
3. Benefits don’t translate to all workers
Paid sick leave rules were designed for a conventional FTE workforce and do not translate in the same way for workers who are temporary and who work at varying worksites. It accrues slowly and must be used in the same area (same zip code in some instances). This makes it very tricky to determine when and where the sick leave is valid. Say a worker accrues one hour after 30 hours of work. They are unlikely to turn down a $700 day gig for one hour of accrued sick pay. Paid sick leave mandates provide little benefit to temporary workers, but still require expensive, complex tracking. As is often the case with such mandates, it can backfire when applied to the flexible, freelance workforce.
The bottom line
According to this article, the “tortured” history of paid leave in the U.S. indicates that abundant paid leave of any kind seems a bit countercultural for a country famous for its hard-working ways. As it stands, the fury continues, with Texas duking it out as we speak.
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