You've probably heard the term "sick leave" — but what does sick leave actually refer to, and why should it matter to you?
As of 2017, seven states have a paid sick leave law. These seven states include: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia. In addition, 22 cities across the United States have a sick leave law and give full-time employees sick leave depending on hours worked.
Like with bereavement leave, there are no federal laws requiring or protecting paid sick leave, making America the only country amongst a lineup of 22 developed nations that doesn’t guarantee pay if an employee, or a close member of the employee’s family, gets an illness and needs to take a sick day.
In 2015, President Obama signed an executive order (Executive Order 13706) which established paid sick leave for federal contractors. This order required these government contractors to allot 7 days to a sick leave bank and family medical leave to its employees every year for preventative care, an existing health condition, illness or injury.
According to a 2015 poll by the Huffington Post, 70% of those surveyed believed that companies should be required to pay employees for sick time. This poll also asked questions about maternity leave and paternity leave. 67% ruled in favor of the former, and 55% ruled in favor of the latter. These results come alongside statistics from the Department of Labor that show 40% of private sector, low-earning workers aren’t guaranteed paid sick time.
And yet, even with an overwhelming majority of people calling for reform when it comes to paid time off and paid sick leave, the momentum seems to have stagnated.
But what is sick leave and how does it differ from other types of PTO like parental leave and vacation time?
In general, sick leave refers to the time an employee takes off from work to stay at home to address either their health, or the health of a close family member like partner or child. It can be for preventative reasons like a doctor’s appointment, for an illness, or injury. It is different from medical leave, as outlined by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) which is a federal law providing eligible employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to attend to a serious illness or injury in the family or with themselves.
And while there is no federal law protecting sick pay and sick leave, many policies follow a similar structure when they are present within the organization. An average sick leave policy looks like the one outlined below.
In general, a full-time employee is guaranteed a certain amount of sick days based on hours worked per pay period. Sometimes, these days can be accrued over pay periods, a fiscal year, or a calendar year. There is usually a sick leave bank that holds these hours. If an employee needs to request time off for an appointment, they usually put down this time in advance and their employee supervisor can sign off on it. But sick leave can also be used last minute, as most of us don’t know when we’re going to come down with a stomach bug. Some companies require a physician statement in order for the pay leave to become valid.
These policies shift also depending on exempt or non-exempt staff. If you have any questions about what your classification is, human resource is a good place to get those answers.
But even though some companies have these policies in place, many do not. And it’s those that potentially suffer. If you don’t know what side you’re on, learn about the two side of the debate below.
In defense of paid sick leave:
First and foremost, most people can agree that if a person is sick, they should not come to work and risk infecting others. So in one way, paid sick leave should be guaranteed and people should have a paid sick leave bank so that they can take that time to recuperate and come back to work healthy and refreshed and not fear losing valuable income. It would also benefit the company or organization as it would keep the germs quarantined and away from the office. If a person has the flexibility and freedom so stay home, they would be saving many others from also falling ill.
Therefore, giving employees paid sick leave would encourage them to take the time off that is necessary to get better, and come back to work eager to dive back in. This would keep employees from multitasking poorly or not putting their all into their work.
To put this into perspective — let’s say you’re going out to dinner to a nice restaurant, you want your servers, waitstaff, and cooks to be healthy, right? But what if the cook making your steak has a cold, the flu, or some kind of bug and he can’t financially afford to take the time off — what’s he to do? He has to work, which means there is an increased risk that your food is being contaminated. Let’s say you now get food poisoning as a result. Wasn’t it worth paying this employee for sick time more worth it than the chain of events that could inevitably follow?
For many, there is a very real fear that they will not be able to support themselves due to decreased income, or fear that they will lose their jobs if they call out sick. Most people can’t afford unpaid sick leave either.
Also, what if an employee has a child at home that is sick? Maybe they’re a single parent, and have no support system to take care of the child while they are sick. What are they supposed to do? Not showing up for work could cost them their job, or food for the next week. Paid sick time could alleviate these stress points put on so many low-income workers.
There is also a significant psychological impact on those without paid sick leave.
According to a study by Florida Atlantic University and Cleveland State University which was published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, workers who are not guaranteed paid sick leave report a higher level of psychological distress. They are also more likely to say that this stress interferes with their daily lives.
"Given the disproportionate access to paid sick leave based on race, ethnicity and income status, coupled with its relationship to health and mental health, paid sick leave must be viewed as a health disparity as well as a social justice issue," said LeaAnne DeRigne, co-author of the study.
Similarly, the Department of Labor found that workers who do not have paid sick leave are more likely to be injured on the job whether it’s due to working conditions, physical stress, or mental stress from being forced to work when not at their fullest potential.
Not to mention, when these low-earning workers do get sick or injured, the cost to alleviate the problems are exponential.
In reports conducted by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, results showed that by giving people paid time off, they’d be reducing the cost of emergency room visits. Many times, these low-income workers don’t have the time to take preventative care seriously, and are forced to get emergency services at the last minute. Paid sick leave would allow workers to take their health more seriously and prevent more devastating conditions from developing — and keeping their finances safe from alarming emergency room bills.
But it’s not just the negatives that make the case for paid sick leave.
For many employers, a happy, healthy, productive environment is key. It means happy customers and clients. It means low turnover rates. It means high profits. Giving employees paid sick leave gives them that boost of confidence that they need to increase productivity and profitability.
The cost of trying to find a new employee is worth nearly as much as the lost employee themselves, which is why businesses strive to have lower turnover rates.
Not just that, but think about the loyalty and trust that could be built up between employer and employee if they are given the respect of getting paid for their work even when they are too sick to do it. That shows investment,care and respect for employees that is invaluable for an employer.
A paid sick leave or PTO policy also makes employees feel like valued adults who can be trusted to use these days with caution and discretion. Paid sick leave isn’t something that can be used all willy nilly. There’s stil procedure involved, but it gives employees peace of mind that the stomach bug they caught, or that their child caught, won’t cost them their job.
In opposition to paid sick leave:
As with any other forced financial stipulation, many of the arguments against paid sick leave revolve around its economic impact.
Many argue that by making paid sick leave mandatory, you would be forcing the increase of prices on good and services across all industries. That, or reduce the benefits these full-time employees, or hourly employee, already benefit from.
By requiring sick leave, companies might have to roll back bonuses, perks, vacation time, and other company benefits like outings and snacks.
Studies show that after San Francisco mandated paid leave, 30% of low-wage worked experienced cut hours and layoffs. There’s the fear that if these mandates were enacted on a larger scale, it would negatively impact jobs and the economy as a whole. Driving up prices and creating an even more unequal economic gap.
There’s also no proof to show that when given paid sick leave, that people actually take it. It’s still very likely that people will continue going to work sick even if they have the opportunity not to do so
Many companies find that after a years’ time, employees still have unused sick leave days which shows that the proposed legislation is not, in fact, “one size fits all” and should be catered to each company on a company by company basis. There’s a large amount of pushback for this reason. Organizations don’t want the federal government imposing laws on a nationwide level. What works for Google might not necessarily work for the small business in Idaho. For many, they want to be in control of their sick leave policy, not the government. And many already have these intricate policies that include a sick leave pool for illness or injury, sick leave accrual, and a host of other sick leave programs to aid their employees depending on full-time part-time employment.
Regardless of what side you’re on, it’s obvious the importance this debate has on American society.
Both sides have merit, with statistics and studies proving many differing, sometimes contradictory points. It is more imperative to ensure the economic climate stays the same, or is it vital to close the gap and guarantee workers rights? In the long run, it’s a question that needs answering, or at least more debate on. With the number of policies and issues floating around the political theater, it’s time guaranteed paid sick leave got more time in the spotlight. If not for our sakes, then for the sake of our children and their children.
Even if this is an issue not for the federal government, but for state and local municipalities. Workers deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, and affording them paid sick leave gives them that affirmation that what they’re doing matters. No one is perfect. Things happen. People get sick. For some, they are lucky enough to be able to take the time off when they need to, when their daughter comes down with a cold or their husband gets an injury at work. But for many, getting sick means lost wages and maybe even lost employment. Not only that, but it also means extensive fees if the illness isn’t caught in time.
Even if we can’t agree on the need for required sick leave, we can agree on the need for better worker’s rights. And any step in that direction is a step forward.