Monday, May 21, 2012
State House News - Study cites sick leave
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Boston —

Backers of a bill allowing hundreds of thousands of Bay State workers to begin earning paid sick leave touted the findings of a new report on Monday suggesting employers would save money under the proposal, but one House supporter said she was still uncertain that the bill could gain traction in the waning months of the electionyear session.

"I would like to see it move. We have a lot of support. It's also getting to the end of the session," said Rep. Kay Khan said, indicating that she planned to meet with House Speaker Robert DeLeo next week on the issue to try to "rejuvenate his thinking on it."

Khan and Sen. Patricia Jehlen hosted an information session on Monday at the capitol to discuss the findings of a new report by the Institute for Women's Policy Research, which concluded that the proposal to mandate paid leave for most workers in Massachusetts will save $74 million per year for businesses and taxpayers.  The institute is a national think tank that focuses primarily on domestic women's issues, including paid sick days.

The report estimates that the bill (H 3995), if approved, would cost employers roughly $198 million in additional benefits, but would yield $224 million in savings through reduced employee turnover, training expenses and lost productivity.  The study projects $24 million in direct health care savings realized by lower expenditures for services to workers and their families and another $24 million in reduced annual expenses associated with emergency department usage and fewer norovirus outbreaks in nursing homes, the report states.

"We need to find out why folks are so reluctant to give their good workers time they need," Khan said, echoing the remarks of Jehlen who said it's hard to understand why employers would not want to give workers the benefit.  Rep. Denise Provost (DSomerville) and Rep. Denise Andrews (DOrange) also attended the meeting.

Business groups, including Associated Industries of Massachusetts and the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, have strongly resisted mandating sick leave, warning the bill could cost the economy as many as 12,000 jobs and claiming such policies are best established by employers.

"The employers who can afford to offer this benefit are already doing it," said Bill Vernon, state director of the NFIB, in a statement. "To believe that it should be mandated is to believe that some employers are acting against their own financial interest because they don't care about their workers. That's a terribly unfair caricature of small business owners."

Brad MacDougall, associate vice president of government affairs at A.I.M., said the study missed the point of business's biggest objection to the bill. "The report doesn't contradict the main argument which is that it's all about the freedom of Massachusetts employers to make decision about benefits. The point that our members vehemently oppose is that they object to the mandatory nature of the legislation," MacDougall told the News Service.

The bill is pending before the Health Care Financing Committee, which has a June 1 deadline to make a decision.

Khan acknowledged that business opposition has made it difficult to advance the bill, but noted that Sen. Daniel Wolf, the cochair of the Labor Committee and CEO of Cape Air, supports the bill along with other business owners. "It's a tough year. It's an election year, so a lot of people are reluctant," she said.

Khan did not rule out the possibility of offering the paid sick leave proposal as an amendment to the health care cost containment bill expected to be debated in the House in the coming weeks.

Of the 910,000 workers in Massachusetts without paid sick leave, approximately 531,000 would receive some type of paid leave under the bill, according to the report, while another 50,000 would receive unpaid leave that at least offered job security for time missed at work.

The bill, which was released favorably by the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development earlier this year, would allow all workers except seasonal employee to accrue sick time. Businesses with more than 10 employees would be required to allow up to seven paid sick days, while workers at businesses with between six and 10 employees would be eligible to accrue up to five days of paid leave.

Small businesses with five or fewer employees would be required to allow workers up to five days of unpaid leave.

Noting that similar measures have passed in Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Seattle and San Francisco, Khan said educating her colleagues in the House and Senate is an important part of building momentum for the bill, which has stalled for years on Beacon Hill.

"While we'd like to be among the first, it helps to see other states coming forward so we have the information that the sky didn't fall and it was the right thing to do," Khan said.

Citing data form the National Center for Health Statistics, Jeffrey Hayes of the Institute for Women's Policy Research said the average worker with seven days of paid sick leave will use just 2.5 days per year. The report estimates that the cost to business would be equivalent to a 19cent per hour raise, or $6.54 per week for newly covered employees.

Barbara Broussard, an emergency room nurse at Tufts Medical Center, said she sees a lot of patients come into the emergency room during her overnight shift with illnesses that could have easily been treated by a primary care physician. She said emergency room visits drive up the cost of care because of the additional tests run on patients.

"I see people coming in so much sicker than they should be because they couldn't get the time off," Broussard said.