Congress considers new sick leave bill

The proposed bill would guarantee both part-time and full-time workers five days of paid sick leave.

Mackenzie Martin

If youâÄôre sick, stay home. The advice sounds simple, but the combination of the economy and the H1N1 influenza pandemic has made taking unpaid sick leave an investment that some canâÄôt afford to make. In an effort to prevent transmission of the virus in the workplace, congressional leaders met Tuesday to discuss the need for an emergency sick leave bill proposed by House Democrats. The temporary bill, introduced by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., on Nov. 3 would guarantee five paid sick days to employees who have a contagious illness, including H1N1, and who have been directed to stay home by their employer. The new legislation would take effect 15 days after being signed into law and remain in effect for two years. Under the bill, a sick worker would have to be told by their employer to stay home or go home sick. The employer may end the paid time off at any time they believe the employee is well enough to return to work. At that time, the employee may choose to continue on unpaid leave or other existing sick leave policies. âÄúWe have good evidence that shows that this makes sense both for workers and for businesses,âÄù said Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, at a hearing Tuesday. âÄúWeâÄôve reached the point where we need to act.âÄù According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 61 percent of private-sector workers receive paid sick leave, compared to 89 percent of those employed by the government. In Minnesota, 1 million workers âÄî 46 percent âÄî donâÄôt have paid sick leave benefits. A spokeswoman from the office of Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said a companion bill will soon be introduced in the Senate by Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and that Franken âÄúcertainly plans to co-sponsorâÄù the bill. University of Minnesota Human Resources Representative Joe Kelly said that while the University is prepared to enact its emergency pandemic policy, it hasnâÄôt made any changes to its sick leave policy in response to H1N1 at this time. Kelly said current University sick leave policies are âÄúfairly generousâÄù and said the âÄúvast majorityâÄù of employees have paid sick leave, which accrues with hours worked. âÄúEvery unit is being encouraged to encourage employees to stay home when theyâÄôre sick and be as supportive as possible of people being home when theyâÄôre sick,âÄù Kelly said. Jennifer Munt, public affairs director for AFSCME Minnesota Council 5, said 93 percent of the labor unionâÄôs members have paid sick leave as a core benefit. Those who âÄúfall through the cracksâÄù include new hires who havenâÄôt yet accrued sick leave, part-time and seasonal workers and nonprofit employees. âÄúThe H1N1 pandemic has raised real concerns about people reporting to work sick and then spreading the disease,âÄù Munt said. âÄúThat shows the urgent need for Congress to enact legislation that would guarantee sick leave for all workers.âÄù The sick leave bill, called the Emergency Influenza Containment Act (EICA), would cover both full-time and part-time workers in businesses with 15 or more employees. Employers who already offer at least five days of paid sick leave would be exempt. The Center for Disease Control estimates that every sick worker infects one in 10 co-workers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the majority of American workers without access to paid sick leave are in lower-wage jobs that have direct contact with the public, in fields relating to schools and health care, and in the food service and hospitality industries. The emergency bill comes while a similar, permanent bill that would guarantee seven days of paid sick leave lags in Congress. The Healthy Families Act, introduced last May, has recently gained the support of the Obama administration. Though similar, EICA would only require businesses to offer their workers five days of paid sick leave and would be temporary. Supporters of EICA say the bill is more likely to pass because its policies are less likely to be abused, as sick leave would be at the discretion of the employer.