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COMMENTARY: Small business squabbles over paid sick time

Two months after a severe flu season forced millions of workers to stay home, paid sick time is becoming a topic for many small-business owners.

City councils in Portland, Ore., and Philadelphia this month approved laws requiring employers give their workers paid sick leave. And two Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill in Congress that would make paid sick leave a federal requirement.

But there’s a great divide among business owners. Some say paid sick time creates financial and administrative burdens for businesses struggling with a recovering economy and uncertainty about health care costs and federal budget cuts. Others argue it makes for a happier workplace and encourages employees to stay home instead of coming to work and infecting everyone around them.

A lot of Americans get paid sick leave, including many who work at small businesses. A study issued in July by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 66 percent of small businesses, those with as many as 499 workers, provided paid sick leave. Among companies with fewer than 50 workers, half of them provided leave.

Lawmakers have been stepping in to get paid sick leave extended to more workers. San Francisco widely is believed to be the first major city to enact a paid sick leave law. The law, which requires that sick time be given to all workers, took effect in 2007.

Since then, Washington, Seattle and Connecticut have enacted laws, and Portland’s City Council passed its bill March 13. The laws aren’t identical, but all generally provide for workers to accrue sick time.

Paid sick leave has run into roadblocks in other cities. In Milwaukee, for example, voters in 2008 approved a referendum creating a paid sick leave ordinance, but it was nullified by a subsequent state law that banned local governments from enacting such laws.

The consequences cited by opponents of paid sick time include paying overtime to replacement workers. The added expense would prevent them from expanding, or hiring other workers. Keeping track of accrued sick time will force an owner or another employee to take time away from other critical tasks.

Those topics probably will be raised in Congress, where Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, have reintroduced the Healthy Families Act, which would require that workers be allowed to earn as many as seven days of paid sick time a year.

A study by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics issued last month showed that workers generally take few sick days. Those in such industries as financial services, information, transportation and professional services took an average of about four sick days a year. Those in the leisure, hospitality and construction industries took about two days.

And many small-company owners say paid sick time is good business.

“We, like many bookstores in the country, do not pay exceptionally well,” said Bradley Graham, owner of Politics & Prose in Washington. “We’re very happy to be able to offer additional compensation to the staff in the form of paid sick leave.”

Joyce M. Rosenberg is a business writer for The Associated Press.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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