New sick leave law may have limited effect

by Annie Baxter, Minnesota Public Radio


ST. PAUL, Minn. — Tim Sorenson can’t forget what happened a couple of years ago, when a few hours before his shift, his sister called to tell him their father had suffered a stroke and was on his way to the hospital.
“So I called work and said, ‘Something’s wrong with my dad,” recalled Sorenson, a nursing assistant in the Twin Cities. “‘He’s in an ambulance. We think it’s a stroke or something. I’m going to the hospital so I’m calling in sick. I can’t make it.’ “
But when Sorenson tried to use a sick day for the episode, his supervisors would not allow it. They told him sick days only covered his own illness or a dependent child’s.
A new state law that takes effect Thursday will change that for workers at companies that have at least 21 employees. It adds adult children, spouses, parents, grandparents and step-parents to the family members an employee can take paid sick days to care for.
The law may not make a big difference for workers in Minnesota, as many employers already have dropped restrictive sick leave policies in favor of more flexible paid time off benefits.
But that hasn’t stopped detractors from decrying the law — or proponents from cheering it. “When I talk about the last legislative session with employee groups around the state and our union, this ranks at the top of the list as far as day to day impact on their lives,” said Jamie Gulley, president of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota.
Sorenson, who was miffed by his employers’ refusal to allow him to use sick time to care for his father, said it will allow many employees to be open about their reasons for needing time off. When his father was ill, Sorenson told his employer he could have lied to take the day off.
“… I just finally said, ‘Well, I learned that next time I just tell you I have a cold because that’s how simple it would’ve been for me to use a huge bank of time I’ve accumulated.'”
– Tim Sorenson
“At the very end I just finally said, ‘Well, I learned that next time I just tell you I have a cold because that’s how simple it would’ve been for me to use a huge bank of time I’ve accumulated,’ ” Sorenson recalled. “I’ve been there 22 years. I had to just take the day without pay.”
The new law does not force firms to offer sick leave policies. Instead, it only requires that employers with existing sick leave policies extend them to allow workers to take care of more close relatives.
Some employers fear that the new law will make it harder to police employees’ use of sick time, said Joe Schmitt, a Minneapolis attorney who specializes in employment law.
“There’s the administrative burden of trying to figure out whether any one of these relatives was in fact sick, and whether the employee was taking care of this relative,” Schmitt said.
If more workers take time off to care for sick loved ones, he said, that also could mean lost productivity.
Both the labor groups and nervous employers could be overstating the law’s potential effects.
The state’s powerful business lobbying group, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, did not take a position against the new sick leave law.
That may be because many companies already let employees use paid leave to care for relatives or for other purposes.
Many offer paid time off, or PTO, which combine sick, vacation and personal days. That bank of time can typically be used as the employee sees fit.
A survey this year of 518 companies by the Society for Human Resource Management shows that a growing share of employers — 52 percent of those polled — offer paid time off. A shrinking share — 34 percent — offer paid sick days, which allow employees to take care of themselves and their children.
“The concept of sick leave is almost gone,” said Jason Averbook, an HR consultant for Appirio, company that aims clients develop better relationships with customers and employees. “The majority of organizations are using PTO, which is used for whatever.”
It’s not just sick leave policies that are going the way of the dodo bird. So are limits on how much time employees can be off.
Averbook said many white collar firms are granting employees unlimited sick and vacation days. It may sound odd, but it helps the bottom line.
“Most of our customers that’ve done it find that employees use less when it’s unlimited than when they actually have a number that they have to use,” he said. “They actually take more to get to that number.”
Minnesota’s new sick leave law won’t apply to people who work as contractors and lack any sick or vacation benefits.
If they catch the flu or have a sick spouse who needs tending to, they likely will have to take a day off without pay.

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