Today, we’re the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers. Let’s put it to a vote right here in Washington. Send me a bill that gives every worker in America the opportunity to earn seven days of paid sick leave.

President Obama, State of the Union Address, January 20, 2015

HR, payroll and benefits professionals are well informed about the federal Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which entitles most workers to 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave for their own illness or to care for a family member.  

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Federal Paid Sick Leave Mandate: 2015 Outlook

Wed Jan 28, 2015

Today, we’re the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers. Let’s put it to a vote right here in Washington. Send me a bill that gives every worker in America the opportunity to earn seven days of paid sick leave.

President Obama, State of the Union Address, January 20, 2015

HR, payroll and benefits professionals are well informed about the federal Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which entitles most workers to 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave for their own illness or to care for a family member.

In his State of the Union Address President Obama asked Congress to expand FMLA by requiring most employers to provide 7 days of paid sick leave per year for employees. Specifically, the President urged Congress to approve the “Healthy Families Act,” introduced by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) in 2013.

White House staff research indicates that over 40 million American workers have no access to paid sick leave. And the International Labor Organization (ILO) found that the U.S. is one of only two countries out of 185 that do not require paid maternity leave. 

Moreover, the White House Council of Economic Advisers reports that paid leave can be a win-win for employers as well as  workers, helping recruit and retain talent, lowering worker turnover, boosting worker productivity and inducing a healthier work environment by encouraging workers to stay home when they’re sick.

On the other hand, there are strong arguments against enacting a federal paid leave employer mandate. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) said in a statement that, “The president’s call for a federal sick-leave mandate is the wrong approach” and would “limit employer flexibility and stifle workplace innovation…which are the hallmark of effective and flexible workplaces.”

To be sure, a federal paid sick leave mandate could pressure employer costs, especially in the low margin retail and restaurant sectors, disrupt scheduling and increase compliance complexity. Short-notice intermittent paid sick leave, e.g., to care for family members with chronic medical conditions, could pose huge administrative challenges.

While the proposed Healthy Families Act would exempt businesses that employ fewer than 15 employees, small business groups like the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) oppose a federal paid sick leave mandate. Business would be especially concerned if the legislation made part-time workers eligible to accrue paid sick leave.

Two other employer objections will get lawmakers’ attention. First, the proposed legislation could interfere with the trend toward Personal or Paid Time Off (PTO), combining a set number of vacation and sick days. It’s not clear that legislation mandating a certain number of paid sick days would accommodate the PTO approach.

And second, the Murray-DeLauro bill does not pre-empt state and local paid sick leave laws, confronting employers with a crazy-quilt of conflicting state and municipal sick leave mandates as well as a federal standard. The White House report lists California, New Jersey, Washington, Rhode Island and Connecticut, as well as San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, New York, Newark and Jersey City as among those who have enacted paid sick leave mandates.

All things considered, few in Washington DC expect Congress to give the paid leave proposal serious consideration this year. Noting that the White House did not prioritize this legislation while Democrats controlled the Senate, some suspect the proposal may have 2016 political overtones.

With little action at the federal level employers can expect the focus on paid sick leave to continue in state and local governments. Some, like California, will choose the route of UI-like temporary disability insurance funded by payroll taxes. Others, like San Francisco, will opt for an employer mandate.

That the spotlight should shift from Washington DC to states and municipalities is not necessarily bad news for paid sick leave. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis coined the term “laboratories of democracy” to describe the ability of states to try new public policy ideas. Federal inaction is likely to spur more states and cities to formulate new ideas to help workers care for themselves and their families—and perhaps help their employers as well.