All could have paid sick leave for small price

July 2, 2008 

California soon could become the first state to require employers to give paid sick leave to every worker.

The proposal has passed the Assembly and is pending in the Senate. If it passes there, it would go to the desk of Gov. Schwarzenegger, who has not taken a position on the bill. Even if Schwarzenegger were to veto the measure, Democrats are likely to keep pushing it.

"Paid sick days is going to be the next huge basic-rights issue," said Sara Flocks, an activist for workers rights. She was a major player behind the passage of a similar measure in San Francisco. "California adopting this law would really send a message that we are able to do this and not drive business out of the state. It's not a job killer."

Many of the people who provide those jobs disagree. The National Federation of Independent Business claims that the mandate would cost business $4.6 billion directly over the first five years, and billions more in lost sales. Businesses would be forced to cut hours or lay off employees, said the NFIB's California director, John Kabateck. He estimates that, eventually, nearly 400,000 jobs would be lost.

At this point, it is difficult to say who is right. A study by the Institute for Women's Policy Research concluded that the bill would cost employers $1.3 billion a year -- more than the employers are claiming. But the institute also says the bill would save employers $2.3 billion annually, a net savings of $1 billion a year.

Although San Francisco voters in 2006 passed a similar measure -- the first in the nation to require paid sick leave -- the county does not have data on how much the benefit is being used or how much it has cost employers.

Assembly Bill 2716 would require all nonunion employers to provide one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours worked, or about one day every six weeks. Employees could take the time to care for themselves, a family member or other "designated person." Victims of domestic violence could use the time for court appearances or other matters.

Studies show that about 40 percent of California employees, or about 5.4 million workers, don't have paid sick leave. Supporters believe that workers covered by the proposed law would use an average of 1.7 days annually for their own needs, not counting maternity leave, and another day for family care and doctor visits.

Ultimately, though, no amount of empirical data is likely to sway the debate in the Capitol. It comes down to a philosophical question: Should government require employers to provide a package of health and welfare benefits to their workers, or should the matter be left to each company?

A poll last year by the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment found that 88 percent of Californians agreed that everyone should get at least seven paid sick days a year. The idea was favored by 94 percent of Democrats, 88 percent of independents and 76 percent of Republicans.

If the idea is that popular, perhaps supporters should consider making the benefit an insurance program financed by workers, the same way family leave is funded now.

Supporters say the sick-leave program would cost less than $7 per week per employee. That's less than 20 cents an hour for a full-time worker. Employers might still oppose such a policy, as they did family leave, on the grounds that the program would encourage workers to take time off. Some workers might see the premium as a subsidy from the healthy to the sick, or from those who are willing to work while ill to those who are not.

But an employee-financed system would overcome most of the economic objections to the idea. And it might prove to be a good way to merge the ideas of personal responsibility and the social safety net.

Weintraub can be reached at 916-321-1914 or at dweintraub@sacbee.com.

THE SACRAMENTO BEE

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