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Flu fuels sick day fire

By Sean Ryan

Milwaukee-area contractors are not experiencing the swine flu problems that are fueling the effort to require paid sick leave at businesses.

“If anybody needs it, it’s available,” Doug Mortenson, M.A. Mortenson Co. operating group safety director in Brookfield, said of time off. “No questions asked.”

But the flu is adding weight to arguments for paid sick leave requirements as 9to5, National Association of Working Women, lobbies Wisconsin cities to approve new sick leave laws, said Amy Stear, Wisconsin director of 9to5. The organization also is seeking sponsors for state sick leave legislation in 2010.

“We believe part of what is necessary to stem the spread is to make sure people will stay home,” she said, “and that they’re supported in staying home with paid leave to do it.”

The swine flu also is part of the argument behind a federal two-year paid sick leave requirement supported by U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd and U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Democrats representing Connecticut. The legislation, introduced Tuesday in the U.S. Senate, would require companies give workers up to seven paid sick days annually for two years after the bill is approved.

But large, Milwaukee-area construction companies are giving workers more flexibility this year to take time off if they get sick. In response to the swine flu, CG Schmidt Inc. created a new policy to let workers who are out of paid days off this year borrow against days they will accrue in 2010, said Stefanie Meyers, director of human resources for the Milwaukee-based builder.

There has not been a noticeable increase in employees calling in sick, Meyers said. She said she is making sure there is hand sanitizer in the office and on job sites, and she is posting notices in bathrooms and food areas to remind people to wash their hands.

“It’s been pretty minimal,” Meyers said. “And from the office standpoint, those that have been sick, we’ve been flexible.”

Stear said she is getting calls from workers in Milwaukee who, unlike Schmidt’s employees, cannot get paid time off to recover from the flu.

“People are in need of access to paid sick days right now,” she said, “because of this national health emergency.”

Stear’s organization is appealing the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce’s circuit court victory in a case over a Milwaukee sick leave law that was approved in a November 2008 referendum. The law requires Milwaukee companies with fewer than 10 workers offer up to five sick days per year, and larger companies offer up to nine days per year.

The MMAC, in its response Monday to 9to5’s appeal, reiterated the law violates the Wisconsin Constitution and is illegal. The next step in the case will come later this month, when 9to5’s attorneys respond to the MMAC arguments.

Steve Baas, Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce director of government affairs, rejected the argument that swine flu proves sick leave requirements are needed.

“Killing jobs is going to do nothing to cure the swine flu,” he said.

The sick leave requirement could encourage construction workers to stay home instead of going to work sick, but the extra cost and chance that workers would be abusing the opportunity makes for a bad trade, said Dan Burazin, safety director for the Associated General Contractors of Greater Milwaukee Inc. Government-mandated sick days would give people more incentive to stay home than the current program offered in collective-bargaining agreements, which funnel money from paychecks to compensate workers for days off.

“Because we do a lot of exterior work,” Burazin said, “the airborne thing is not as big a deal as if you have a lot of cubicles.”

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