Keeping sick workers off feet, not clock

By Metro Editor

Going to work ill to avoid losing pay may soon be a distant memory for private sector employees thanks to a proposed ordinance that would require employers to provide paid sick leave.

The proposal, introduced to the City Council March 5 by Aldermen Proco Joe Moreno (1st Ward) and Toni Foulkes (15th Ward), would require employers to provide full-time workers with one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked starting on their 120th calendar day of employment. Currently, private businesses are not required to provide paid sick days. But while employees are celebrating the bill, small-business owners worry the proposed fines for law violations could negatively impact them. 

Employers that violate the ordinance would be fined $500 per complaint, and the fine would double after a second violation and triple with each subsequent violation, according to the ordinance. Employers would also be barred from firing or threatening to fire employees who take sick days. 

Chicago would be the sixth city to require private sector companies to offer paid sick leave, joining Jersey City, N.J., New York City, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, Ore. 

Restaurant Opportunities Center United, 77 W. Washington St., an organization that advocates for improved working conditions for low-wage restaurant workers, supports the ordinance because when restaurant workers fall ill, many must choose between losing pay or going to work sick, said Astar Herndon, policy & research coordinator for ROC-United in Chicago. 

“Paid sick days is one of the most important pieces of legislation that we push for, obviously because of the public health concern,” Herndon said. “I think framing it as a public health argument makes it more palpable for people.” 

The proposed law also extends to workers who must take time off to care for ill family members, giving mothers the opportunity to take care of their sick children or elderly parents without worrying about losing their jobs or job security, said Melissa Josephs, director of Equal Opportunity Policy at Women Employed. 

“We really are interested in [the ordinance] both for the individual worker who can get sick, as well as staying home to take care of family members,” Josephs said. “We know that a lot of the mothers would often stay home with the sick child.”

However, some small-business owners are concerned about government-regulated sick day policies because it is an added requirement to monitor and many do not have large enough staff to do so, said Mark Grant, assistant state director for the National Federation for Independent Business in Illinois. 

“It’s not easy running a business because of all the different things a business owner has to deal with aside from just trying to sell products,” Grant said. “The smaller the business, the tougher it is.”

Employers would be required to retain records of paid sick time taken and could face a $100 penalty if they fail to comply. 

Grant said businesses represented by the NFIB have an average of 10 employees and often do not have staff to manage accounting or other clerical tasks, so improper filing or violations can happen easily. 

“If the business owner makes mistakes, there are pretty steep penalties. If you screw up, it can cost you a lot,” Grant said.  

Herndon said she knows requiring paid sick days can impose an added burden for small-business owners, but she thinks they should consider the long-term. She said employees would be more loyal and there would be lower turnover rates, which is detrimental because replacing employees requires more time and resources. 

“The cost outweighs the long-term cost of … being liable for public health concerns,” Herndon said.