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Paid Leave Laws Catch On Across the Nation

Activists hold signs during a rally for paid sick leave at New York's City Hall last year.
Mary Altaffer
Activists hold signs during a rally for paid sick leave at New York's City Hall last year.

This month, Rhode Island became the third state in the nation to offer workers paid family leave to care for a loved one. And on Tuesday, Newark, N.J., became the latest in a small wave of cities to mandate paid sick leave.

The policies cover both public and private sector workers, and a dozen more areas are considering some variation of them.

In New York City, a new paid sick leave law hasn't even taken effect yet, but already Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to expand it. In a speech two weeks ago, he said his plan would cover half a million more people by eliminating exemptions for certain sectors, and by including employers with five or more workers instead of the current threshold of 15. Employees working 30 or more hours a week will earn up to five paid sick days a year.

De Blasio also wants to phase in the law faster so that it takes full effect by April 1. And he would do away with the requirement that it be dependent on a good economy.

"Because in a troubled economy, people need paid sick leave even more to protect their families," he told a cheering crowd of supporters.

The law, said de Blasio, would help people like Leonardo Hernando, who's worked at a car wash for eight years.

"I've never missed a single day of work, even if I have a cold or fever," Hernando said, "because if I don't show up, I don't get paid."

'Family Values'

U.S. labor laws date to the 1930s, a time when most families had a stay-at-home mother. The only federally mandated leave covers just half of the workforce, and many people tell pollsters they can't afford to use it because it's unpaid.

In Nebraska, state Sen. Annette Dubas also says it's time for change.

"We like to really talk a lot about family values, but it doesn't seem like our policies match our talk," Dubas says.

She says the problem doesn't hurt only the lowest wage workers. It hit her personally last August, when her daughter gave birth to her second set of twins.

"She's a teacher, found out that she has to use all of her own vacation days, all of her own personal days and all of her sick days in order to stay home after having a baby," Dubas says. The same is true for a staffer in Dubas' office who also gave birth last summer.

This month, Dubas proposed the Paid Family Medical Leave Act. Workers would get up to six weeks off a year and would fund it themselves with a payroll tax.

The bill hasn't yet gotten a hearing, but nationwide, business groups have consistently opposed a slew of such bills. Some states have even passed laws to prevent local governments from passing their own versions of paid leave.

John Kabateck of the National Federation of Independent Business says such mandates are a burden in a bad economy.

"It's raising the cost of labor on mom and pops who are already struggling, but this will ultimately hurt the very people it aims to help — fewer benefits, fewer positions and people in the unemployment line," Kabateck says.

Studies do find that a small share of businesses have cut back workers, hours or benefits because of paid leave policies. But most companies report little to no impact.

On the other hand, Vicki Shabo of the National Partnership for Women and Families says paid leave can be a lifesaver for workers. She says more women than ever are breadwinners for their families even as they remain the primary caregiver.

"So when she needs to take time off to take care of a loved one or to care for a new baby, her family simply can't survive if there isn't some job protection or wage replacement coming in, and that's true for men, too," Shabo says.

A California proposal this month would guarantee at least three paid sick days, and advocates say proposals in several more places are expected soon. In Massachusetts, if lawmakers don't approve a paid sick days bill, it will go to the ballot in November.

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Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.