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Businesses Push Back On Paid-Sick-Leave Laws

Sandy Robson (left) and Crystal Hall rally for legislation for paid sick leave on April 11, 2016, in Annapolis, Md. Under a bill recently sent to Gov. Larry Hogan, businesses with 15 or more full-time employees would be required to allow workers to earn at least five paid sick days a year.
Brian Witte

Nearly three-quarters of private sector workers receive paid sick days from their employers, though there is no federal mandate requiring it. In recent years, dozens of states, cities and counties have passed their own ordinances, which typically require employers to provide between three and seven paid sick days a year.

The business community is fighting against the proliferation of these laws, saying that the landscape for paid-leave regulation is getting way too complex.

It's a large administrative headache, says Lisa Horn, director of congressional affairs for the Society for Human Resource Management.

"Mainly because of this hodgepodge, or patchwork, of a growing number of states and localities implementing ... paid-sick-leave mandates," she says.

So Horn says her group, along with other business groups, is helping draft a Republican proposal in the House of Representatives. The terms aren't finalized, but Horn says the basic idea would be to set a floor for the amount of paid sick leave employers could voluntarily offer. If that minimum threshold is met, she says, the employer would then be exempt from state or local regulations.

The concept is known as pre-emption; such laws are increasingly common, and not just for paid leave. Some states have laws that pre-empt city and county regulations governing minimum wage, anti-discrimination policies, or ride-sharing.

So far, 19 states have legislation that pre-empts local governments from passing their own laws on paid sick leave. (Oregon has a paid-sick-leave law that went into effect last year requiring paid sick time for all but the smallest employers. That law establishes paid sick leave statewide, but it also pre-empts local laws.)

Proponents like Horn argue that federal and state pre-emption laws alleviate big administrative burdens for employers. But opponents argue such efforts undercut states' and cities' authority. Since many of the local measures were passed by ballot measures, their opponents say pre-emption nullifies the will of local voters who want more generous benefits for workers.

"We are concerned that we could start to see more super-pre-emptive measures where both the federal government as well as the state government is impinging on city rights," says Brooks Rainwater, a senior executive for the National League of Cities. He says statehouses tend to be more dominated by rural conservative interests, who see themselves opposed to some progressive policies backed by urban voters.

Paid leave — whether it's sick days or time off to care for a new child — is politically popular on both sides of the aisle.

Democratic proposals include the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, which would create a fund to provide up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. Another, called the Healthy Families Act, would allow workers to earn up to seven days of annual paid sick leave.

Republicans, meanwhile, last week passed a controversial proposal, known as the Working Families Flexibility Act, that would allow employers to offer paid leave as compensation for overtime work. Another, called the Strong Families Act, would offer tax credits for businesses voluntarily offering leave.

Vicki Shabo, vice president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, says her group's post-election poll showed 82 percent support for paid sick leave.

She says support is nonpartisan. "That includes two-thirds of Republicans, three-quarters of independents and virtually all Democrats," she says.

That study underscores a recent poll from the Pew Research Center, showing support for paid leave ranging from 67 to 85 percent, depending on the specific policy. President Trump has endorsed parental leave and has not repealed his predecessor's executive order granting paid sick leave to federal contractors.

Shabo says some companies in recent years have also announced generous leave policies, but she says low-wage workers still have less access than their white-collar professional counterparts.

"Where we've seen progress has been in places regionally in the West, where Oregon and California have adopted paid-sick-days laws," she says.

Though the debate over paid sick leave is national, most analysts agree Congress is less likely to act on it and that the fight will remain mostly at the state and local levels.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Business Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, DC. Since joining NPR in 2008, she's covered a range of business and economic news, with a special focus on the workplace — anything that affects how and why we work. In recent years she has covered the rise of the contract workforce, the #MeToo movement, the Great Recession, and the subprime housing crisis. In 2011, she covered the earthquake and tsunami in her parents' native Japan. Her coverage of the impact of opioids on workers and their families won a 2019 Gracie Award and received First Place and Best In Show in the radio category from the National Headliner Awards. She also loves featuring offbeat topics, and has eaten insects in service of journalism.
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