Sick leave plan a healthy move or job destroyer?

SANDUSKY Most employees know the feeling of dragging through a shift while illness wages war against
Annie Zelm
May 24, 2010



Most employees know the feeling of dragging through a shift while illness wages war against their will to work. Others have received that midday call on the job from a school nurse or sitter asking them to pick up their sick child as soon as possible.

If a statewide coalition has its way, workers will have up to seven days off each year to care for themselves, their children or parents without sacrificing their pay.

Public opinion polls show up to 70 percent of Ohioans support the proposal, but many in the business community liken it to a plague on an already ailing state economy.

The Ohio Healthy Families Act, which would require businesses with 25 or more workers to allow full-time employees to earn seven paid sick days per year, will likely appear on the November ballot.

Ohioans for Healthy Families, a 229-member coalition, recently submitted more than twice the required number of signatures and are waiting for approval from the Secretary of State.

Sen. Mark Wagoner, active in early negotiations to find a compromise for the act, called it "a step in the wrong direction."

"We'd be the first state (in the nation) to have this, and we're struggling right now with perceptions about Ohio -- whether companies want to come here," Wagoner said. "The act could set us back and could cost us jobs throughout the state, in Erie County particularly."

Wagoner said businesses would incur not only the costs of lost productivity but the administrative expenses of complying with the act.

"I've heard employers say if they have 30 employees, they're just going to eliminate five to comply with the act," he said.

Part-time or seasonal workers could earn a smaller, pro-rated number of paid sick days depending on the number of hours they work.

Entertainment companies such as Cedar Fair, which employs about 8,000 seasonal employees in the state among its three parks, would have to raise prices "tremendously" to cover the costs, President and CEO Dick Kinzel said.

"It would kill growth and deter industry from coming into the state," he said.

Kinzel said he believes his company already has a "very liberal" sick day policy -- allowing for one sick day each month and the possibility for full-time employees to accrue sick days up to 90 days. This allows them to be covered for short-term illness or disability.

Small firms feel the pain

Brian Hall, a Columbus partner for the Porter Wright Morris & Arthur law firm with expertise in labor and management, said the act especially hurts smaller businesses and those in the manufacturing industry.

"Many small businesses don't provide that much paid leave, and they're going to need to take leave from other places, potentially, or reduce benefits or wages," he said.

He also pointed to clauses in the act which would permit employees to take up to three days off without providing documentation and to arrive up to an hour late or leave early without being held accountable.

"That makes it very difficult, particularly in a manufacturing setting, to coordinate production," he said.

Erie County Chamber of Commerce executive director John Moldovan said he expects the act to be challenged if passed. He said most businesses with 25 people or more employees probably already have some sick day policy -- but to comply with the mandate, many would have to hire a new administrative assistant, reduce wages or decrease other benefits to make up the difference.

"Our issue is the mandate," he said. "Businesses have a lot of mandates already -- they don't need more."

Keith Dailey, spokesman for Gov. Ted Strickland, said the governor's office continues to work toward a compromise.

Possible compromises include converting the number of "days" into hours to eliminate any ambiguity, possibly reducing the number of paid "hours" permitted and changing the way in which salaried employees are able to accrue paid sick leave.

Health and fairness

Proponents of the act argue business owners are overestimating the costs to their company. Some say paid sick leave will actually save businesses money because it will improve worker productivity, decrease the spread of illness and result in better retention.

A study conducted by Policy Matters Ohio, a non-profit policy research organization, found that of workers who already have paid sick days, 54 percent never use a single day.

More than 2.2 million Ohio workers have no paid sick days, and 3.3 million cannot use those days to care for a sick child or parent, the organization states.

Another study by the Institute for Women's Policy Research found that providing paid sick days in Ohio would yield a net savings of more than $1 per worker per week.

Ohioans for Healthy Families spokesman Dale Butland said members of the legislature have paid sick days -- at the expense of taxpayers -- along with company CEOs and more affluent workers. "The business community doesn't feel the executive are cheating," Butland said. "Why are (paid sick days) a good idea for CEOs and politians, but not for everybody else?"

But it's more than just an issue of fairness -- it's a matter of public health, he says.

"Here in the state, 600,000 workers have jobs that bring them into close contact with public who have no paid sick days," Butland said. "That includes restaurant workers."

He cited a Center for Disease Control and Prevention study that showed about half of all illnesses from restaurants originated from workers -- not the food itself.

In Kent, a Chipotle worker infected more than 450 people after coming to work with the norovirus in April -- causing vomiting, diarrhea and some hospitalizations.

State organizations supporting Ohioans for Healthy Families include the Ohio AARP, Cleveland City Council and several chapters of the United Auto Workers and United Food and Commercial Workers.

Local reaction

Local residents also seemed to favor it.

Victor McClellan, 42, a convenience store clerk at Hy-Miler, said he would be grateful for even a few paid sick days.

"I can't afford to get sick," McClellan said, "and I don't make enough to go to the doctor."

McClellan said he thinks paid sick days are a good idea, but he believes the act might make it easier for some employees to abuse the privilege.

Paul Brown, 50, a welder for R & S Technologies in Bellevue, said he knows what it's like to work while under the weather but is willing to compromise.

"Employers could be a little more lenient," Brown said. "I think five days (sick leave) should be good across the board."

Workers in the service industry, who tend to have the most contact with food and customers, are usually the least likely to have paid sick days at their disposal.

Milan resident Corrin Gonzales, 23, said paid sick leave would have helped when she hurt her back several weeks ago. Not wanting to sacrifice a day's worth of wages and tips, she worked through the pain as a waitress at Ruby Tuesday's but ended up having to take an unpaid sick day anyway when it became so bad she had to see a physician.

"(Paid sick days) would be a nice reassurance," she said.

Sandusky resident Haley Krause, 20, who works with elderly residents at the Portland House, admits she's worked while sick on more than one occasion.

Last month, she was injured after she and her 10-month-old son were involved in a car collision and taken to the hospital by helicopter.

"I couldn't afford to take more than a few days off," she said. "You have to earn your sick days where I work."