Spotlight Exclusives

A Renewed Push for Paid Leave Laws

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In recent weeks, President Obama has made paid sick days and family medical leave laws a central component of proposals aimed at leveling the playing field for all Americans. He used his State of the Union address to urge Congress to put paid sick days “to a vote here in Washington” and proposed in his 2016 budget an initiative that encourages states to adopt paid family and medical leave laws.

The United States is the only advanced country without access to paid maternal leave, and 43 million private sector workers currently lack paid time off when they are ill with the flu or their children are sent home from child care with a cough. President Obama’s proposals are part of a paid leave movement that has gained traction and succeeded in enacting laws across the country. Both states and cities are filling in the federal void.

This past November, Massachusetts joined California and Connecticut on the list of states that guarantee workers paid sick days leave. In addition, 16 municipalities around the country have passed similar measures. In the last election, paid sick days became law through ballot initiatives in each of the four jurisdictions where the public got a chance to vote directly on the policy.

According to a joint Huffington Post-YouGov poll, the majority of Democrats and Republicans support paid sick day laws. The poll finds that 84 percent of Democrats, 69 percent of Republicans and 68 percent of independents believe companies “should be required to offer it.”

Despite polls showing public opinion in favor of these changes, conservatives have expressed skepticism about the benefits to employees. James Sherk, senior policy advisor at the Heritage Foundation, argues, “If Congress makes paid sick leave mandatory, companies will respond by cutting workers’ pay by approximately the cost of providing the sick leave.”

Business spokespeople from organizations like the National Federation of Independent Business and the Employment Policies Institute echoed similar concerns. They say that President Obama’s proposals would mean increased costs as well as “fewer jobs or reduced hours for low-wage employees, and fewer raises or employee benefits for other workers.”

Others suggest the business impact would be minimal. In a 2014 Spotlight Exclusive Commentary, Center for Economic and Policy Research Senior Economist Eileen Appelbaum highlighted the results of her study on Connecticut employers█¬ experiences a year and a half after the state█¬s paid sick leave law went into effect. She noted that “for most employers, the overall effect on the bottom line was either nonexistent or minimal.”

There is no way to know whether the national discussion around paid leave laws will result in new federal policy in the next Congress. What is clear is that this debate suggests a nationwide reevaluation of workplace standards. Spotlight will continue to follow these developments as they relate to low-income people and communities.

Posted by Sarah


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