By Lauren Keiper
BOSTON (Reuters) - Connecticut became the first state in the nation this month to mandate paid sick days for workers, a move advocates say could be a catalyst for similar campaigns in 20 other cities and states considering such a benefit.
Bartenders, librarians, dental hygienists and other service workers in Connecticut are poised to earn paid sick time at the start of 2012.
While San Francisco and Washington, D.C. currently guarantee paid sick days for workers, with some minor variations in the laws, Connecticut is the first state to follow their lead.
The move is being watched closely by Massachusetts and California and the cities of Philadelphia, Seattle and Denver, all of which are considering similar legislation or have active campaigns underway, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families.
Advocates say paid sick days reduce public health risks and provide job security for workers who need time off to care for themselves or a sick family member at relatively minimal cost to employers. Opponents say the costs are unaffordable.
"The basic reality is that there are 40 million people in the United States that don't have paid sick days," said Vicki Shabo, director of work and family programs at the National Partnership.
"They risk being fired or disciplined if they are sick, a child is sick, or a family member needs medical care," Shabo said.
In Connecticut, service workers will accrue one hour of paid sick time for every 40 hours worked that can be used after having been employed a certain amount of time. They must work, on average, at least 10 hours a week and can accrue up to five days.
Some estimates show the cost to employers that currently provide no sick days would be a small fraction of sales. Proponents note that studies show typical workers will use far fewer than their allotted sick days.
COVERS HOURLY WORKERS
The bill, passed by legislators earlier this summer, covers only service workers paid by the hour at firms with more than 50 employees, excluding manufacturers and some others.
Despite the limitations, advocates say the law is an important catalyst for burgeoning campaigns to mandate sick pay elsewhere. There are roughly 20 cities and states moving toward such a requirement.
Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy signed the bill on July 1 and has long supported the paid sick leave mandate.
"Why would you want to eat food from a sick restaurant cook? Or have your children taken care of by a sick day care worker? The simple answer is you wouldn't. And now, you won't have to," Malloy has said.
Those opposed argue the costs, which could vary substantially across business sectors, are too high. Some business groups say it will drive up labor costs.
Employers, particularly small businesses such as restaurants or hair salons, will be hard-pressed to find the money for those added benefits, they say. A still-sputtering economy amplifies the challenge.
"When you increase the cost of hiring people in a down market, you also decrease the likelihood of growing and creating jobs," said Kia Murrell, assistant counsel for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association.
For employers to comply, it could mean passing higher prices on to consumers or reducing employee wages and benefits in other ways.
Connecticut employers are already a generous bunch, and this mandate puts the state at a competitive disadvantage in attracting new businesses, Murrell said.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Cynthia Johnston)