Paid leave proposals back in spotlight

President Obama wants to expand paid leave, Boehner is interested in an alternative plan for private sector.

But if a 2008 effort in Ohio is any indication, such a push likely will run into swift and harsh opposition.

Years before Obama used his State of the Union address to call for U.S. workers to receive federal paid sick leave, Ohio briefly toyed with — and ultimately rejected — putting that idea on the ballot.

In 2008, a union-led coalition of more than 180 groups worked up an Ohio ballot proposal that would have required employers to offer seven paid sick days a year. But, feeling pressure from business groups and fretting about hurting an already struggling economy, then-Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, opposed the plan. The coalition ultimately dropped its campaign.

Since then, three states have passed bills requiring paid sick leave — Connecticut, California and Massachusetts, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.

On Tuesday, Obama called on Congress to pass a bill giving all U.S. workers the chance to earn seven days of paid sick leave. Forty-three million workers have no paid sick leave, he said, forcing parents “to make the gut-wrenching choice between a paycheck and a sick kid at home.”

It’s an idea that appeals to Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, a co-sponsor of a bill with a seven-sick-day plan.

“Paid sick days save employers money,” he said. “They reduce turnover and help increase productivity. Paid sick days are vital to maintaining public health.”

House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester Twp., supports an alternative that would give private-sector workers the option of using their earned overtime toward paid time off — something that’s been allowed for public-sector workers since 1985.

“It’s a much more common-sense way of empowering employees to make those decisions on their own,” he said in an interview last week. “Who do they think is going to pay for seven days of mandated employer-provided sick leave? That’s going to mean less employment, less jobs. It’s ludicrous.”

When Ohio considered putting the sick-leave issue on the ballot in 2008, it polled well — receiving support from 45 percent of Republicans and

76 percent of Democrats, according to a Dispatch Poll taken in late February that year.

But the business community was less enthusiastic, and the state faced a recession. “It became a divisive issue,” said Strickland when contacted last week.

Seven years later, however, he thinks the economy has recovered enough to give the idea another shot. Doing it at the federal level, he said, would be the best way forward because it would “not create the competitive disadvantages” that would come from having paid sick leave in one state and not in another.

Amy Hanauer of Policy Matters Ohio, a progressive research group focused on economic issues, said 42 percent of Ohio employees — 2.2 million — do not receive paid sick leave. Many of those who do have paid sick leave “still don’t miss a single workday in a year.”

“It’s not as if this is something that is abused by groups of workers,” she said. “Most just use it as intended — as a safety net.”

She said many economists argue that such a proposal would help the economy by reducing the spread of contagious disease and keeping other employees from getting sick.

“More to the point, it’s sort of a very basic, decent standard that professionals expect,” she said. “And one of the things that’s so egregious about it is it’s often the hardest, lowest-paid and most physical jobs where people don’t have this basic right.”

Critics of Obama’s proposal include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which argues that the plan would put yet another mandate on U.S. employers already struggling to comply with the requirements imposed by Obama’s 2010 health-care law.

“Employers recognize the desirability of paid leave and many of them currently provide it when it is feasible and consistent with their resources,” said Randy Johnson, senior vice president of Labor, Immigration and Employee Benefits for the chamber. “Saddling America’s smallest employers with a new inflexible mandate, enforced by private lawsuits and the Department of Labor, at a time when they are already struggling with the intricacies of Obamacare is the wrong approach.”

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