Too sick to work, too broke not to

State ponders whether to require businesses to give paid sick leave

By Casey Farrar
Sentinel Staff
Published Thursday, September 10, 2009
State lawmakers will soon take up a bill that could require businesses to offer paid sick leave to all employees.

Supporters of the proposal, such as Nikki Murphy, executive director of the N.H. Women’s Lobby and Alliance in Concord, say it will improve public health by keeping sick employees off the job.

But opponents, like David A. Juvet, senior vice president of the Concord-based N.H. Business and Industry Association, say it will place burdensome costs on small- and mid-sized businesses already struggling through the recession.

“Where does this end?” Juvet said. “You could argue that businesses should be required to provide vacation time for mental health or say they have to provide a retirement savings account.

“Many businesses look at those and try to provide those if they can and if it makes good business sense. But there’s a big difference between the business choosing that and the state mandating that.”

The bill, introduced by Rep. Mary Stuart Gile, D-Concord, would require businesses with 10 or more employees to provide up to five days of paid sick time to all part- and full-time employees who have worked there for six months.

The sick time, which can also be used to stay home with sick family members or for preventive care, would be earned at a rate of 1 hour of sick time per 30 hours worked, according to Gile.

As state health officials prepare for a possible H1N1, or swine flu, pandemic, they’re urging workers to stay home if they feel sick to avoid spreading illness to co-workers or other members of the public.

However, only about half of all businesses in the state offer paid sick days to full-time employees and about 20 percent pay part-timers for sick leave, according to a study by Human Impact Partners, an organization that lobbies for health issues in public policy.

Gile is quick to point out that the bill is not a reaction to H1N1 — it was proposed before the outbreak last spring — but says it could help with this and other outbreaks of disease.

Financial strain from lost wages or fear of losing their jobs can push sick employees to go to work despite illness, Gile said.

“That introduces stress if they don’t have sick leave,” she said.

Similar legislation is being considered in 13 other states and a federal bill has been proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives. Washington D.C., San Francisco and Milwaukee have all passed measures requiring paid sick leave.

But opponents argue that the bill will force businesses to take on an expense they can’t afford.

“If you’re forcing benefits onto employers, something’s got to give,” said Debra A. Rivest, owner of Elm City Brewing Company and Restaurant in Keene. “With any business you have, your expenses and payroll is already one of your highest expenses.”

Rivest says when one of her 44 employees has to stay home sick, he or she usually swaps shifts with co-workers.

Rivest strictly enforces a policy that employees who are sick can’t work and allows parents to stay home with their sick children, but says she’s also mindful of the financial toll that lost pay can have on them.

“If somebody’s sick I don’t want them to work, but I’m going to make sure that I make other shifts available to them so they don’t lose any time,” she said. “For any business to be successful I think you have to care about your employees.”

While she doesn’t provide paid sick leave to any of her employees, full-time workers get paid vacation after working at the company for a year. Like vacation time, she says, the choice to offer sick time should be made by employers.

And Rivest, who says she tries to buy from local retailers for her restaurant, worries that local businesses may be forced to raise prices to meet the increase in cost.

“Businesses in the state may struggle to stay competitive with other states where this isn’t required,” she said.

Officials from some state business advocacy groups including the N.H. Grocers Association and the N.H. Business and Industry Association also say the state shouldn’t mandate employee benefits.

Juvet, of the business association, calls the proposal a “one-size-fits-all benefit plan” that doesn’t take into account the size of the businesses or their ability to pay for sick days.

While many business owners already pay for sick time, the choice should be theirs, he says.

John M. Dumais, president and CEO of the N.H. Grocers Association, says since businesses with fewer than 10 employees would be exempt, mid-sized grocery stores would be hit hardest and may have to pass the cost on to shoppers if the bill passes.

“You talk about double expense there,” he said. “They’d be losing an employee but they’re still paying them while (they’re) paying someone to fill in.”

Grocers are concerned about public health with the rising threat of flu epidemic, and have been working with the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services to formulate a plan — including keeping sick employees home — for curbing the spread, Dumais says.

“Some of those things are expensive to put in place,” he said. “And then to mandate paid leave plus this planning, it’s just too much.”

If the bill passes, the sick leave requirement would go into effect three months later, but it probably won’t happen soon enough to matter during this year’s flu season.

The House Labor Committee’s report is due in December, meaning the bill probably won’t go before the full House until early next year, Gile said.

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