Paid sick leave is back in the news, thanks to a mention in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech. Mandated paid sick days are already a reality in our state. But do they actually do what they promise?
Eric Gejde, a lobbyist for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, took to the radio and Twitter on Wednesday to push back against paid sick leave mandates, citing a study by the conservative Freedom Foundation that suggests paid sick leave policies do not in fact do what they claim to do.
— Eric Gjede (@egjede) January 21, 2015
The Freedom Foundation study is interesting, but not because it’s accurate. It’s not — it’s one of these “studies” from a think tank that makes a lot of leaps of logic and data slicing to make its point. I could point to any number of similar studies from other think tanks and policy groups that either prove or disprove the necessity for paid sick leave. No, what really interests me here is that it underscores the difficulty in clearly proving the impact of paid sick leave or many other major social policies.
The arguments for and against paid sick days are as follows: mandated paid sick leave is either a social and economic benefit which helps control disease, increases productivity, and alleviates poverty, or a it is a burdensome regulation that in fact accomplishes none of what it’s supposed to do while hurting small business. So which is true?
The incredibly unsatisfying answer seems to be: both, and neither.
The research about paid sick leave not conducted by partisan organizations or advocacy groups is very spotty. A lot of what’s out there relies upon surveys of either workers or employers, and is thus subject to the same sort of bias manifested in any sort of poll or survey.
Another problem is that because few areas in the United States actually have paid sick leave mandates the few studies out there about them are necessarily short-term. For example a analyzed the short term effects of Connecticut’s paid sick leave law, which was passed in 2011. They found that there was only a very small effect on the economy, and said: “Although there are real labor market impacts, the magnitudes seem rather small to justify the level of political and popular interest in the policy.” That’s as close to snark as academic papers get.
The data on public health effects is actually a little more clear. A nationwide article found that paid sick leave meant that workers who were sick actually stayed home instead of coming to work and infecting everyone there.
And beyond that? There’s very, very little. The Freedom Foundation study, for all its bias and flaws, says it best: “Comprehensive academic studies about the effect of sick leave mandates on businesses and employees are nearly nonexistent.”
So what should we conclude from all of this? The logic that workers, when sick, deserve to be able to stay home without worrying that they’ll lose their jobs seems solid, but actual data about the effects of these mandates is scarce. The impact on public health seems worthwhile, but the economic effects are nebulous at best and employers seem to agree that the mandate is fairly burdensome.
The bigger problem is that the murky, unsatisfying reality is awful politics compared to partisan fantasy. There’s no clear answer that we can tie to numbers, dollars, or some other measurable outcome.
What to do, then?
I still strongly support paid sick leave mandates. The public health benefits are enough of a reason, and the idea that an employer would ever make an employee choose between health and income is repulsive to me.
I’m aware that my argument is more about my own sense of morality and fairness than anything else. That, at least, is something I’m certain of.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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