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More states adopt tough paid sick-leave laws

Dr. Martha Perez examines Maria Lebron in a room at the Community Health of South Florida, Doris Ison Health Center in Miami, Florida.
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Dr. Martha Perez examines Maria Lebron in a room at the Community Health of South Florida, Doris Ison Health Center in Miami, Florida.

A new paid sick-leave law took effect Saturday in Arizona, which joins a cluster of other states in continuing momentum on an issue that has seen broadening political support.

Measures adopted across the nation typically require a minimum number of paid sick hours or days each year and often mandate other guidelines in terms of permissible reasons for leave and record-keeping duties for employers.

A required minimum of 40 hours a year has become fairly standard.

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Arizona's new law is one of the toughest. It prohibits retaliation against workers seeking to exercise their rights, mandates that some unused sick leave may be carried over to a new year and applies to just about all workers, including temporary, seasonal and part-time staff.

The Arizona law also provides sick leave for a range of issues beyond actual illness such as routine doctor's visits or even seeking legal or other help to deal with sexual abuse, domestic violence or stalkers.

There are reasons why many Americans, and lawmakers, are looking beyond politics in supporting these measures.

"You probably don't want someone who prepares your food to go to work sick," said Rachel Deutsch, a senior staff attorney for the New York-based Center for Popular Democracy, a group that has pushed for sick-leave laws, including the one that Arizona voters approved last November. "There's a strong public-health rationale."

While employer groups often oppose these measures — Arizona's law had to survive a legal challenge that went to the state's Supreme Court — the business community hasn't been uniformly opposed.

"This has become more of a bipartisan issue — something that the American public wants," said Bryan Hum, an associate at the ERISA Industry Committee in Washington, D.C. "This is a year of paid sick leave."

His group advocates on behalf of large employers on public policies dealing with health care, retirement and compensation issues. Member companies, with 10,000 or more workers, already typically provide paid sick leave. Rather, the committee tracks these measures primarily to make sure the laws are reasonably consistent so that big employers don't need to deal with a "patchwork" of regulations, Hum said.

More states come on board

Arizona becomes the seventh state, plus the District of Columbia, to adopt a sick-leave measure, with most of those actions coming within the past two years.

What is notable in Arizona's case is that it's a more politically conservative state than the others — California, Oregon, Washington and the three New England states of Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont.

That's in addition to 28 cities or other local jurisdictions — New York, Chicago, San Francisco and others — with their own ordinances, Hum said.

There's no similar paid sick-leave law at the federal level.

Over the first half of 2017, more than 200 proposals addressing paid sick leave in some way have been introduced at state legislatures, including multiple bills in certain states, Hum said.

Maryland, Illinois and Rhode Island are among the states that are actively considering such measures currently, he added.

The Arizona law, while popular with voters, has generated plenty of confusion.

"I believe this is one of the worst thought-out and worst written laws I've ever had to implement," said Matt Redmann, executive director of Epi-Hab Phoenix. "There are so many unanswered questions."

What employers may face

Arizona attorneys have been warning that employers could slip up and face fines from a number of violations. For example, the law prohibits employers from retaliating against workers taking or even requesting sick time. Adverse actions such as disciplining a worker, reducing his or her hours or denying a transfer could be viewed as retaliation, even if an employer took such actions for other reasons.

Large employers with national operations can face problems when trying to comply with different requirements across jurisdictions.

For example, the Arizona law carves out few exceptions for employees or employers. By contrast, according to ERIC, Californians don't qualify for that state's sick-leave benefit until they have worked at least 30 days in the state for the same employer.

In Vermont, employees must average at least 18 hours of work each week to qualify.

Oregon's law, meanwhile, applies to employers with at least 10 workers in the state, and Connecticut covers private employers with 50 or more. The District of Columbia has a list of exceptions for employers.

According to a new report, Most Americans support paid family and medical leave.

Some recent proposals, at the state or local levels, sometimes deal with tangential issues such as paid family leave (for elder care, the birth of a baby or an adoption) or more predictable shift scheduling.

"Each of these is seen as a piece of the puzzle that can create an economy that can sustain families and give people a chance to thrive," said Deutsch.

In Arizona's case, the paid sick leave law was coupled with a proposition that also raised the state's minimum wage to $10 an hour. It passed with 58% of the votes in favor.

Incidentally, Oregon, Maryland and the District of Columbia are hiking their minimum wages effective July 1, reports the Employment Policies Institute. That's in addition to 14 municipalities, primarily in California but also including Chicago and Flagstaff, Ariz.

While the minimum-wage component garnered more headlines in Arizona, the sick-leave provision likely will affect more workers, said Tomas Robles, executive director of LUCHA or Living United for Change in Arizona.

"A lot of the jobs that came back following the recession were service jobs," Robles noted. "Often, they haven't offered benefits like sick pay.

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