Senate President and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Libby Mitchell is proposing to mandate that Maine businesses and organizations provide sick leave. Sen. Mitchell has linked the push for the employee benefit to the predicted H1N1 flu pandemic.
Wanting to have sick leave expanded across the work world is a laudable goal. And strong arguments can be made in favor of the measure. But this is a case where government intervention in the labor marketplace amounts to the state laying its hand on the scale that balances worker compensation with the pursuit of profits.
Under LD 2134, employers with 25 or more employees would have to provide each worker with 52 hours of sick leave each year, accrued at the rate of one hour for each 40 hours worked. Employers with fewer workers would have to grant 26 hours of sick leave each year, accrued at one hour for every 80 hours worked. Businesses already providing that level of sick time or better would be exempt.
A similar measure failed to win legislative support last year.
Sen. Mitchell persuasively asserts the positive outcomes of such a law, which she says establishes a safety net for workers. Employees who come to work while sick because they will lose pay if they don’t infect others, she said. This drives down productivity, and can cause widespread absenteeism. And sick workers in day care centers, nursing homes and restaurants can spread their illnesses to catastrophic results.
But the need for the law has not been demonstrated. Most businesses with 25 or more employees provide sick leave. Many with fewer than 25 employees do so as well. Often, at businesses that provide sick leave, employees come to work under the weather because they feel a sense of obligation to their co-workers. And on the other end of the spectrum, some employees at businesses with sick leave take the time off when they are not sick, because they see the time off as part of their compensation package.
If the sick leave bill is approved, it would make Maine the first state in the nation with such a rule, perhaps furthering any anti-business reputation the state may have. Three cities — San Francisco, Milwaukee and the District of Columbia — do have sick leave mandates, and similar legislation is pending in a dozen other states.
Vacation time, pensions and 401(k) benefits are established in the labor marketplace; the more an employer needs workers, the more benefits are offered. Paid sick leave — which should be distinguished from unpaid sick leave — should remain within employer-employee negotiations, and should not be mandated by the state.