Although a few states – most notably California – as well as a handful of cities have passed legislation requiring that employers provide paid sick leave benefits to employees, federal law presently does not mandate that employers offer this benefit. (The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires that certain employers provide time off for an employee’s or a family member’s illness, or for the birth or adoption of a child, but it does not require that the leave be paid.) In a January 14 White House policy statement entitled “Why We Think Paid Leave Is a Worker’s Right, Not a Privilege,” Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett noted that 43 million U.S. workers presently do not have any paid sick leave benefits and that the U.S. is the only developed country in the world that does not provide paid sick leave as a matter of national labor policy. Consistent with the Administration’s goal of “fully supporting and empowering working parents in both their roles as workers and parents,” the policy statement announced that on January 15, President Obama would urge Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act. (Interestingly, this policy statement was first released by the Administration on LinkedIn; Ms. Jarrett commented that it was being released via the online professional social networking site because working professionals are “in the best position to drive change.”)
The Healthy Families Act would require that all U.S. employers with at least 15 employees allow employees to earn at least 1 hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked, with a maximum accrual of 56 hours (7 days) per calendar year (unless the employer voluntarily chooses to set a higher limit). Paid sick leave benefits could be used for the employee’s own illness, or to care for the medical needs of certain family members (including a domestic partner or the domestic partner’s parent or child), or to seek medical attention, assist a related person, take legal action, or engage in other specified activities relating to domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking.
To demonstrate the Administration’s commitment to paid sick leave, also on January 15, President Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum directing all federal agencies to revise their personnel policies to advance sick leave – up to 30 days’ worth – for use at the employee’s request in connection with the birth or adoption of a child, to care for ill family members, and other sick leave-eligible uses.
In addition to seeking to drive change at a federal level, the Administration’s stance also is intended to support the considerable number of states and municipalities that that are in the process of considering their own sick leave initiatives. Much like the ongoing debate on Capitol Hill and elsewhere concerning an increase to the minimum wage, business groups – particularly those representing small business owners’ interests – are likely to oppose any federally-mandated paid sick leave requirement due to the substantial additional cost providing that benefit would impose. Given the current political makeup of Congress, passage of the Healthy Workers Act seems rather unlikely in the near-term, however, sick leave continues to be on the legislative agendas in many states, and thus passage of mandated sick leave, at least in some states or local jurisdictions, would seem to appear to be an eventual forgone conclusion.