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Sick-time rules revisited

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More governments look to require small businesses to provide time-off benefits for illnesses.

Wall Street Journal | March 1, 2012

Thomas Erb is ticked about the possibility he'll be forced to hand employees even more paid sick time.

He fears lapses in productivity at his 30-employee clock-making firm, Electric Time Co., from possible increases in unscheduled absences.

"We have one person per job here," said Mr. Erb, of Medford, Mass. "If someone starts to abuse the sick [leave], the organization doesn't function."

A debate over paid sick leave is intensifying around the country, amid concerns that economic pressures are prompting workers to place their financial security above their health.

Many people will go to work while ill – and even send their children to school sick – because they can't afford to stay home, supporters of paid sick time say.

Supporters are concerned by signs that small employers have begun cutting back on paid sick-day benefits.

About 32 percent of businesses with fewer than 50 employees provided paid time off specifically for illness in 2011, compared with 39 percent in 2009, according to the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va.

Connecticut in January became the first state to require paid sick leave, though businesses with fewer than 50 workers are exempt.

Seattle will mandate paid sick time, starting in September, even for firms of a relatively small size. Those with between five and 49 employees, for instance, must let their workers accrue at least five days of paid sick time yearly.

The push for paid sick days initially gained major prominence in late 2008, when President Obama, while president-elect, said he wanted a federal sick-day mandate. By then, the city of San Francisco and the District of Columbia had already begun to mandate paid sick days.

One federal proposal, which Mr. Obama backed at that time, would require employers with 15 or more workers to provide seven paid days for their own or a family member's illness.

But the weak economy was an obstacle to that movement, partly because of fears that a one-size-fits-all approach would put businesses at a disadvantage.

After the 2009 swine-flu outbreak, many began to more urgently fear the risks of spreading disease.

Providing paid sick leave "doesn't affect your bottom line. It isn't going to make or break you," said Makini Howell, owner and chef of vegan restaurant Plum Bistro Inc. in Seattle. Generally, absences for sickness at her establishment are rare, says Ms. Howell, who lobbied in support of Seattle's forthcoming mandate.

Small employers that don't provide paid sick leave in most cases have made that choice because they can't afford it, according to Helen Darling, president and CEO of the National Business Group on Health, a nonprofit employer advocacy group in Washington. "It isn't that they're being mean-spirited," she said.

At a 30-employee firm that pays an average of $10 an hour, the cost of providing seven paid sick days could amount to roughly $18,700 a year, including payroll taxes, according to Daniel L. Haynes, a Fredericksburg, Va., accountant.

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