One size does not fit all

Question 4 on sick leave a costly overreach

Question 4 mandates sick leave for every worker in the state. That sounds like a great idea, but the devil is in the details. Requiring employers to provide paid and unpaid sick leave is a bad deal for workers, for taxpayers, and for small businesses, especially in the service industries.

Question 4 as currently written would give Massachusetts the broadest and most rigid mandated sick leave law in the country. Two other states have enacted sick leave mandates. But Connecticut exempts employers with fewer than 50 employees. California allows only three days of leave each year and exempts public employees and companies that have government contracts. Neither state allows employees to take sick leave in one- or two-hour increments as the Bay State plan does.
Read the response from Deb Fastino of the “Yes on Question 4” campaign.
The Massachusetts proposal exempts no one. Every full-time, part-time, or seasonal worker at any type of business, whether a Fortune 500 company, a summer camp, or a “Mom and Pop” retailer, would accrue one-hour of sick leave for every 30 hours of work.

But businesses are not all the same. Some businesses operate eight hours per day and 40 hours per week. Others require part-time workers for certain hours of the day or full-time workers only during certain seasons. Some can operate without one or two workers for several days, while there are those that require a full staff at all times because their customers demand it. If workers at some businesses take a couple of hours off at the beginning, middle, or the end of the work day it’s no big deal; for others, it is a disaster.

Despite all these variables, Question 4 serves up a one-size-fits-all state government mandate that reduces the flexibility of businesses to offer benefits that workers may want or may currently enjoy. Some prefer higher wages and fewer benefits. Others would rather have more time off for travel, to raise their children, or to spend time with grandchildren, and are ready to forego income in exchange for the time.

Others want or need robust health care benefits or seek jobs with better retirement benefits. Employees who receive their benefits through a spouse’s job can earn a higher wage or salary.

The proposed law also threatens to put a damper on job creation by increasing regulations and costs on new or expanding businesses. A 2012 National Federation of Independent Business study explored the economic impact of the proposed Massachusetts law on the Bay State. Unlike other academic studies that look at the impact of different paid sick laws in other states, the federation’s analysis found that that if state-mandated paid sick leave had been enacted in 2012, the measure would have cost 16,000 jobs and $8.4 billion in economic activity in Massachusetts over the next four years.

This mandate would be implemented despite the fact that most Massachusetts employers and most workers enjoy a sick time benefit. The most progressive employers use a paid time off or flextime system that does not require a worker to specify whether he or she plans to use vacation time, personal time, or sick time.

A sick leave law would increase payroll and administrative costs for small business owners who do not have human resources staff. It is a bookkeeping nightmare to keep track of accumulated, used, and banked paid time off. Employers often fear employee lawsuits, knowing that any payroll accounting mistake could leave them liable for triple damages under Massachusetts law.

This mandate could prove to be even more costly since workers, such as a student working part-time on a University of Massachusetts campus, could easily accumulate a few days of paid sick leave every semester, at taxpayers’ expense. Designating two state agencies as the employers of private family child care and home care workers for sick leave purposes also increases the plan’s costs. The law would also designate two state agencies as the employers of private family child care and home care workers, a provision that would further increase costs to taxpayers. California state lawmakers removed a similar provision from the Golden State’s sick leave law this summer due to an estimated $100 million price tag.

Question 4 should get a “no” vote. Sick leave policy should not be resolved by ballot initiative. California and Connecticut passed their sick leave laws in their legislatures, which allowed lawmakers to negotiate with supporters and opponents of the policy and to address the issues that applied to particular industries or workers.

Meet the Author
An up or down vote on a ballot question does not offer the same give and take. Sick leave policy involves thousands of types of workplace situations — different size businesses, different types of businesses, different workers, with different needs and desires. Small businesses and workers seeking a more secure economic future would be hurt if Massachusetts moves to adopt this inflexible sick leave law.

Bill Vernon is Massachusetts director of the National Federation of Independent Business and chairman of the “No on 4” Committee.