Sick leave law didn't hurt Conn.'s health

When Connecticut became the first state in the nation to mandate paid sick leave for hundreds of thousands of service workers, we were warned to expect dire economic consequences. This left us concerned about the law's timing, as the state sought to recover from a recession.

But nothing happened.

It's true that quite a few more people have been paid to stay home when they are sick during the past two years, but sick people staying home has had little impact on the state's economy.

The Washington-based Center for Economic Policy Research found that only 10 percent of the companies it surveyed reported that they were forced to increase payrolls by more than 3 percent as a result of the law.

Predictions that the law would lead to reduced wages and hours for as many as 400,000 workers apparently didn't pan out either. The center reported that just over 10 percent of the employers surveyed said they reduced working hours and only 1 percent reduced wages.

The law barely passed in the final hours of the 2011 session of the General Assembly. It got through the Senate by an 18-17 vote and the House, 76-65, with many conservative Democrats agreeing with the Republican minority that the bill was a job killer. There were warnings that the economically distressed Connecticut would be sending a terrible message to the nation's businesses by becoming the first state to take such drastic action.

But the law also came with many exemptions. It applies only to businesses with 50 or more employees and exempts manufacturing companies and nationally chartered nonprofit organizations as well as day laborers, independent contractors and temporary workers.

Those covered are primarily service workers who receive an hourly wage - like waiters, cashiers, fast-food workers, hairdressers, security guards and nursing home aides. It allows them to receive up to five paid sick days a year.

The authors of the study said part-time workers were most affected by the new sick leave policy and many of them are employed in the retail and hospitality industries, which have grown since the law was implemented in 2012.

So why did the dire predictions fail to materialize? There were, of course, those exemptions for employers with fewer than 50 workers and all manufacturers. But many of these Connecticut businesses already had paid sick leave policies, some similar or better than those covered by the new law.

An immediate result of the law was a reduction in the number of workers who went to work sick, a benefit not only for them, but also for those who worked with them or received their services. One needn't conduct a study to determine businesses like nursing homes and restaurants especially need healthy workers to care for their sick and elderly residents or their food-consuming customers. And the survey did not attempt to measure the economic benefits derived from sick workers not spreading their illnesses to others.

Connecticut remains the only state with mandatory paid sick days for these workers but bills have been introduced in legislatures across the country and have been passed or implemented in cities in California, Washington, Oregon, New Jersey and New York.

New York City's law, passed last year over the veto of outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg, goes into effect April 1. It is a bit more liberal than Connecticut's law, allowing workers to earn an hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, as opposed to Connecticut's 40, with the same cap at five days.

And so it appears the alarm sounded over paid sick leave will prove to be as false as those tolled for every historic improvement in the worker's lot, from the abolition of child labor and the reduction of the work day and week to the introduction of Social Security and the minimum wage.

Each of these laws improved the lives of our hardest working and poorest paid men and women and made us a stronger and better nation.

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