As the H1N1 flu virus continues to spread in Maine, public health officials are urging people to stay home from work or school if they become ill with flulike symptoms.
But for people who don’t earn paid sick time, taking a day off to care for themselves or a family member means the loss of at least one day’s pay. And since workers who don’t have sick-time benefits tend to be low wage earners to begin with, that loss may unravel a household budget already stretched thin, decreasing the motivation to stay home in bed instead of heading in to work.
On Tuesday, Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell, D-Vassalboro, announced legislation aimed at making it easier for Maine workers to comply with the “stay home” recommendation, not only for the H1N1 swine flu but for other illnesses and domestic violence situations as well. In a proposal she will introduce before the Labor Committee in the legislative session that begins in January, Mitchell will argue that all large and small-business employers in Maine should be required to pay their workers, full- or part-time, for a “safety net” of earned sick time.
Asked to comment, business leaders said Tuesday that they appreciate the intent behind the proposal, but that most Maine businesses either already pay sick time or cannot afford to, especially during the current hard economic times.
“We are all being advised by our doctors and employers to stay home if we’re sick,” Mitchell said at a media conference on Tuesday. “But that is a cruel piece of advice if you don’t have paid sick time.”
LD 2134, still in draft form, would require businesses with 25 or more employees to award each worker 52 hours of accrued sick leave each year, earned at a rate of one hour of sick time for every 40 hours worked. Businesses with fewer workers would be required to provide 26 hours of paid sick time, earned at the rate of one hour for every 80 hours worked.
The earned time could be taken not only for physical or mental illness, but also in response to episodes of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking.
Employers already providing sick time benefits at the “safety net” level or higher would be exempt from the law.
Mitchell acknowledged that for some employers, adding a sick time benefit to employee costs could strain the corporate budget. But, she said, hard economic times make it more essential than ever for workers to maintain their take-home wages. And she added that sick workers sicken others, driving down workplace productivity and in some cases causing serious outbreaks of illness. Workers in close contact with the public in settings such as daycare centers, restaurants and nursing homes can spread illness rapidly among vulnerable groups, she noted.
Mitchell said that, unchecked, H1N1 has the potential to inflict billions of dollars of damage on the Maine economy.
Others at the media conference expressed support for the legislation.
Winthrop pediatrician Daniel Summers said he often sees children whose working parents have chosen to put off seeking medical care due to not having paid time off from their jobs. Untreated, common conditions such as strep throat can quickly worsen and spread through a classroom setting, he said. Mitchell’s bill, Summers said, presents “a great opportunity” to affirm the value of parents taking time off from work to care for sick children.
Jill Barkley of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence said earned time should be allowed for victims of domestic violence to find safe housing and to care for children who have witnessed or been the victims of assault. Katherine Pears of the Maine Alzheimer’s Association said the bill would help protect seniors in nursing homes and adult daycare programs.
But Richard Erb, head of the Maine Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes in Maine, said nursing homes already face serious budget difficulties. With Medicaid reimbursements frozen at their current levels for the next two years, he said, nursing homes would have to look to the state for added support if a policy of mandatory sick time were to be adopted.
Erb said residential facilities are anxious to protect their residents from H1N1 and other infectious diseases, and most already provide prorated earned time benefits to workers, which can be used for either sick time or vacation time. Statewide, about 10,000 workers are employed in nursing homes.
At the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, vice president Peter Gore said many Maine businesses, large and small, are already struggling to stay afloat. Particularly in an overall environment of economic decline, he said, requiring them to pay sick time to all workers could cause layoffs, pay freezes, cuts in other benefits or other unintended consequences.
“No one wants workers to come to work sick,” Gore said. “But making [paid sick time] mandatory doesn’t make it any more affordable.”
Gore said no other state mandates sick time benefits.
A public hearing for Mitchell’s bill has not yet been scheduled.