Sick Days and Family Medical Leave

The nation has entered an exciting new era that will allow millions of lower-wage workers to access health care insurance. Tragically, many of these workers will be unable to take advantage of this historic new benefit because they cannot take time off of work to get the care they need due to lack of earned  sick days.  With no job protections or paid sick leave, these workers face impossible choices between taking time to access healthcare for themselves or their loved ones and potentially losing wages or even their jobs.

At the same time, the nation is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), an historic act that allowed many workers time to care for themselves or their loved ones. However, many workers are unable to take advantage of this policy, which guarantees only unpaid leave, because they cannot afford to take to with family without pay. Many more remain ineligible for even unpaid leave, because their employer is exempt from the policy or they have insufficient tenure in their job.

As part of its work life and job quality work, CLASP advocates for state and federal earned sick days and paid family and medical leave insurance policies that will prevent more workers from being denied the time to tend to their own or a family member's health, or care for a new child. Across the country, campaigns to secure these workplace protections for all workers are gaining momentum.

Feb 24, 2015  |  PERMALINK »

Inequities in Paid Sick Days Access, “No-Fault” Attendance Policies Show Need for Public Policy

By Liz Ben-Ishai

According to a new analysis of the 2014 National Study of Employers, many workers whose companies offer paid sick days still face barriers to access. The report, co-authored by Families and Work Institute (FWI) and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) as part of their joint When Work Works project, finds that many firms exclude part-time workers from their paid sick time policies and some impose unfair and counterproductive “no-fault attendance policies.”

These findings illustrate the need for continued efforts to pass paid sick days legislation at the local, state, and federal levels. While voluntary employer action is valuable, the absence of public policy often leads to exclusion of the most vulnerable workers. Paid sick days laws have now passed in 17 cities and 3 states. The new study from FWI and SHRM demonstrates the urgent need to build on this momentum.

Although many employers report that they provide paid sick time to most of their employees, few extend this crucial labor standard to all employees. The study, which surveyed over 1,000 employers with 50 or more employees, found that less than half—41 percent—offered all employees with at least one year on the job access to paid sick days. Another 46 percent said they offered most employees with one year of tenure paid sick days. (These numbers vary slightly for employers with paid time off (PTO) policies, which aggregate all forms of leave. Among employers with PTO, about half extend the policy to all workers.)

Among those without paid sick days, a high percentage are part-time workers. Less than a quarter of employers offer sick time to part-time salaried workers and just over a quarter offer it to part-time hourly workers. About one-third of employers offer PTO to part-time workers. This trend is especially disturbing given the increasing number of workers who hold multiple part-time jobs (1.76 million in 2007, compared to 1.96 million in 2014). Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that involuntary part-time work—workers who take part-time jobs because they cannot find full-time work—also remains high despite the recovery. This has severe consequences, according to the report. Part-time employees with no sick time “may find it a challenge to care for themselves when they are sick or to attend to other personal and family responsibilities without risking a significant portion of their income, either through hours unworked or the risk of losing one or more of their jobs.”

A growing number of state and local laws, as well as proposed federal legislation, allow part-time workers to accrue sick leave at the same rate per hour of work as their full-time counterparts. And there is ample evidence that these laws are working. An evaluation of Seattle’s paid sick and safe time ordinance found that 78 percent of employers in the food and accommodation sector offered part-time workers paid sick and safe time one year after implementation of the law. In contrast, just 14 percent of those employers were providing paid sick and safe time to their workers previously. (It’s worth noting that 100 percent of these employers are required to offer sick time, so while 78 percent is an improvement, it signals a need for continued employer outreach and enforcement of the law.)

Other features of public policy approaches to sick days distinguish the experience of those protected by law from those who have access to sick days at their employer’s discretion. While the survey includes employers with 50 or more employees, most paid sick time laws apply to employees at smaller firms, with the minimum size varying depending on jurisdiction. In addition, the survey asks about employees with one year tenure; however, under all the existing laws, tenure requirements to accrue and use sick time are considerably shorter. Finally, under most existing laws, employers are permitted to use a PTO plan, so long as the plan is otherwise in compliance with legal requirements. Consequently, companies with PTO would not be subject to an extra burden if a paid sick days law passed in their jurisdiction.

In addition to part-time worker exclusions, the new survey data expose punitive “no-fault” attendance policies. Some employers—even those with sick time policies—penalize workers who take sick days for legitimate reasons, including unexpected illnesses or medical appointments. Workers can be subject to disciplinary action when they accumulate a designated number of absences, regardless of the reasons.  According to the study, 13 percent of employers have both no-fault attendance policies and paid sick days policies. Among those with no-fault policies, more than one-third consider paid absences  covered under their sick days policies to be “unexcused.” A day to recover from the flu or care for a sick child may be compensated, but it could still lead to job loss.

Thankfully, these harmful policy contradictions are typically not allowed in jurisdictions with paid sick time laws. Provisions of the laws explicitly ban employers from applying “no-fault” attendance policies to paid sick time and/or prohibit retaliation against workers. 

The FWI, SHRM, and WWW study highlights the fact that some employers voluntarily allow their employees to earn paid sick days. This is good news. However, this new study and national data make clear that voluntary employer action is not enough. With just four in ten employers reporting that they have sick days policies covering all their employees, too many workers are being left behind.

Fortunately, there is a path forward. State and local bills that would protect workers’ rights are moving across the country. And at the federal level, the Healthy Families Act (H.R.932/S.497) was recently reintroduced. If passed, this law would enable millions of workers to earn paid sick time, accruing one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked—regardless of whether  the worker is full- or part-time. Moreover, the Healthy Families Act includes a provision that deems penalizing workers for paid or unpaid sick time under a “no-fault” attendance policy (or similar policy) to be interference with the workers’ rights. It’s critical that we continue the legislative momentum on sick days at all levels of government to ensure every worker is treated fairly.

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