Sick Days

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Who gets paid sick leave?

Federally, it’s up to employers to decide whether their employees should be paid for time off sick. So who gets paid sick leave? The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that as of 2009, only 61% of American workers are granted paid sick leave by their employer. That means that 39% of workers in this country do not get paid if they have to take off work for the flu, for food poisoning, for migraines, or for any other illness that may be incapacitating or contagious. The numbers are worse for low-wage, food service, and hotel workers, with only around 22% eligible for paid sick leave from their employers.

Who gets unpaid sick leave?

What if you want to take a day off to rest because you have the flu, and you offer to take it unpaid? Federally, it’s up to employers to decide whether their employees can take unpaid time off for being sick, unless you have a “serious health condition.”  In 1993, President Clinton signed into law the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which entitles certain workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for a “serious” illness or to care for a spouse, child, or parent with a serious health condition. But only employees of employers with more than 50 workers, and only employees who have had their jobs for more than 12 months, are eligible for leave under FMLA. And a serious illness means a stay in the hospital, or being under a doctor’s care for three days or more. Although the FMLA was a huge step forward compared to having no protections for illness in place at all, most workers cannot afford to take unpaid leave.

Is there anywhere in the U.S. that does things differently?

To date, there are seven jurisdictions within the U.S. that have passed, or attempted to pass, local laws guaranteeing paid sick leave.

  • In November 2006, San Francisco became the first city in the country to mandate that its employers offer paid sick leave to workers. Workers at small businesses (under 10 employees) can earn up to 5 paid sick days a year; other workers can earn up to 9 paid sick days a year. 1 hour of sick time is accrued for every 30 worked.
  • In March 2008, Washington D.C. passed a similar law, with workers able to earn between 3 and 7 paid sick days a year, depending on the size of their employer.
  • In November 2008, Milwaukee followed. However, opposition meant that the law never came to pass, and in May 2011 Wisconsin governor Scott Walker nullified Milwaukee’s ordinance by signing a law that requires uniformity across the state with respect to family and medical leave.
  • In July 2011, Connecticut became the first state in the country to mandate paid sick leave to its workers. Employers with more than 50 workers must allow employees to accrue one hour of paid sick leave for every 40 worked, up to a total of 5 days per year.
  • In September 2012, Seattle enacted a paid sick time ordinance that allows workers to earn between 5 and 8 paid sick days a year, depending on the size of their employer.
  • In March 2013, the Portland City Council approved an ordinance that, as of January 1 2014, will allow workers for employers with more than 5 employees to earn 1 hour of paid sick leave per 30 worked, up to 5 days per year.
  • In May 2013, the New York City Council approved a bill that, as of April 1 2014, will ensure that workers at businesses with 20 or more employees can earn up to 5 paid sick days per year. As of October 1 2015, the bill will expand to workers at businesses with 15 or more employees.  Smaller businesses will be required to provide unpaid sick leave to their staff.

There are also five states that offer temporary disability insurance programs to workers who become disabled due to a non-work related injury or illness: Rhode IslandNew York, New Jersey, California and Hawaii, as well as the commonwealth of Puerto Rico. These programs provide partial wage-replacement insurance coverage under qualifying conditions.

How can change happen more broadly?

In 2009, the Healthy Families Act was introduced by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (Dem-Connecticut) in the 111th Congress. If passed into law, this Act would entitle workers nationwide to accrue up to 7 days a year of paid sick leave at the rate of 1 hour per 30 hours worked. Employers with fewer than 15 employees would be exempt.

There are also movements taking hold in cities and states around the country promoting change at a local level.

Read more about organizations working to help improve access to paid sick days. Get involved.