Legislated paid sick days gain traction in United States

Laws for paid sick days more common in U.S. than Canada
By Sheila Brawn
|Canadian Payroll Reporter|Last Updated: 01/05/2015

In the midst of cold and flu season, some employees have to choose between going to work sick or staying home and not being paid.

For a growing number of workers in the United States, though, 2015 promises to be a year of change.

Beginning in July, new laws in California and Massachusetts will require employers to provide employees with a minimum number of paid sick days or hours every year. In the United States, 39 per cent of private sector workers do not have access to paid sick days.

California and Massachusetts join Connecticut and a number of American cities in mandating paid time off for illness. A decade ago, no jurisdiction in the U.S. required paid sick days until San Francisco passed a law in 2006.

"Three U.S. states and 16 cities have passed paid sick days legislation — including two states and 10 cities in 2014 alone. And additional paid sick days laws are under consideration in numerous states and several municipalities," says a news release from Family Values at Work, an American coalition advocating for family-friendly workplace policies.

Beginning in July, California’s new law will require employers to provide at least three paid sick days (or 24 hours) a year for eligible employees.

The new law will apply to all employers, regardless of their size, and all employees, whether they work full-time or part-time. To be eligible, employees will have to work in the state for at least 30 days within a year.

Employees will earn the days off at a rate of one hour for every 30 hours they work. They will be able to use the paid sick days as of their 90th day of employment, with employers paying them their regular wage rate for the time off.

Employees will be able to use the paid sick days for themselves or to care for a family member.

Employers that already have paid sick day policies will not have to provide extra sick days as long as they provide the time off for the same purposes as the legislation requires and under the same conditions, including at least three days (or 24 hours) of paid sick leave per year.

Employees who do not use all of the accrued sick days will not be entitled to compensation for them if their employment ends; however, the law will require that if an employer rehires an employee within a year of the termination, the employer will have to reinstate any previously accrued and unused sick days.

In Massachusetts, 59 per cent of voters supported an initiative in November elections that will require the state government to implement legislation allowing employees to earn and use paid sick days as of July 1.

Employees will earn one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked. They will be allowed to take up to 40 hours of paid time off each year or carry over the time to the next year. Employees will be allowed to use the sick days for themselves or to care for a spouse, child or parent.

Unlike California, the sick pay requirements in Massachusetts will not apply to employers with 10 or fewer employees. They will be required to provide up to 40 hours of unpaid sick time each year for employees who earn it.

Canada’s exceptions

In Canada, Prince Edward Island is the only jurisdiction with legislation covering paid sick days and it only requires employers to provide one paid sick day a year for employees who have been employed by their employer for at least five years.

Much more common in Canada are legislated unpaid sick days. Most jurisdictions here require employers to provide employees with a minimum number of days off, without pay, if they are sick. The number of days varies from 12 in Saskatchewan and Yukon to three in Manitoba and P.E.I.

To date, no jurisdictions in Canada have announced they plan to amend employment standards laws to require employers to provide paid sick days to employees — despite the fact some labour groups are calling for it.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada, which represents federal government workers, has launched an online petition calling for paid sick leave for all workers in Canada. The group is in the midst of labour negotiations with the federal Treasury Board, which is aiming to cut the number of paid sick days provided to federal public sector workers.

The Saskatchewan Government and General Employees’ Union recommended in 2012 that paid sick days be included in the province’s new employment standards legislation. But the Saskatchewan government did not adopt the recommendation when it passed the act in 2013.

Many employers in Canada already provide paid sick days to employees on their own or as part of a collective agreement.

A 2013 Conference Board of Canada study found that 54 per cent of private sector employers and 82 per cent of public sector employers provide paid sick leave. The paid sick leave is in addition to short-term and long-term disability plans.

The survey also found that paid sick days were more common for larger employers than smaller ones. Seventy-eight per cent of employers with at least 500 employees said they provide paid sick days, compared to 67 per cent of mid-size employers (50 to 499 employees) and 40 per cent of employers with fewer than 50 employees.

Benefits, tips for employers

Gary Johns, a professor at Concordia University and research chair in management at the university’s John Molson School of Business, says paid sick days are something employers should consider.

With paid sick days, it is likely fewer people would come to work sick, reducing the spread of flu and viruses to other workers. And paid sick days offer benefits from an HR perspective, he says.

"It’s one more benefit to make one an employer of choice. It’s also one that connotes trust in employees. It fits into the general zeitgeist of being a caring, progressive employer.

Those kinds of things do provide some advantages for the employing organization."

Still, he says, some employers may have concerns about what it may cost to pay and possibly replace employees for days they are off sick. Other employers may be worried about employees taking advantage of paid time off.

"In the back of many employers’ minds is the notion of abuse," says Johns. "There is enough anecdotal evidence and a little bit of research evidence that suggests that not every sick day is used to help employees that are sick. They are used for other purposes. That notion would bother some employers upfront, especially if they don’t have (paid sick days) to start with."

The best way to alleviate potential problems with sick day policies is to properly manage the policies from the start, says Sandra Pellegrini, a senior consultant with the compensation consulting firm McDowall Associates.

When it comes to creating a plan, she recommends employers design it so it meets employee needs and dovetails with the employer’s short-term disability plan (STD) or, for employers without an STD plan, the Employment Insurance program.

"Design your plan to meet the needs of employees. Absolutely, employees are bound to get sick during the year from time to time so give them a number of sick days that recognize that and ensure that employees are not coming into work simply to get paid; they can’t afford not to stay home because those sick days are unpaid," she says.

"If those sick days turn into some type of medical condition that is longer than your odd day, make sure the number of sick days flows into your short-term disability program appropriately. If it’s EI, then it would be 10. Other STD programs start at various times, so make sure that they dovetail."

She notes that it is essential for employers to communicate the purpose of the policy to employees so workers only use the days for sickness. It is also important for employers to track employee absences to make sure that the policy is working as it should, said Pellegrini.

If employers will not offer paid sick days on their own, Johns says it may be necessary for governments to mandate them. He says he would be in favour of legislation as long as it was fairly simple and straightforward.

"There are some issues here having to do with small employers and so on that have to be dealt with, but I think this might be alright," Johns says.

"What I would object to is some giant, complicated regime being established to run this that makes it more trouble than it’s worth. It’s not so much developing a plan for sick days, it’s all the baggage that surrounds it. If that could be minimized, I think this may be the look of the future," he adds.

Even though the number of paid days off that U.S. states are mandating is relatively low compared to the number already offered by some employers with sick pay plans, Johns says

"I think they send a message. They provide a minimum level of coverage and they signal that this is the kind of thing that we expect employers in this day and age to do."