The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Paid Sick Days and Paid Leave in the States in 2017

By Sarah Fleisch Fink

As many federal lawmakers were focused on rolling back and undermining the rights of people across the country this year, some state lawmakers considered bills aimed at helping people — specifically, measures that would guarantee access to paid sick time and paid leave. Paid sick days policies enable working people to take fully paid time off to recover from common short-term illnesses or health issues, such as the flu, or for preventive care. Paid family and medical leave or “paid leave” policies enable people to take longer periods of time — partially or fully paid — for a personal serious medical condition or to care for a new child or a family member with a serious health condition.

In a testament to the popularity and demand for these policies and tireless advocacy efforts, lawmakers introduced paid sick days bills in 19 states and paid family and medical leave bills in 31 states this year, and some states considered more than one bill. Currently, only seven states and the District of Columbia have, or will soon have, paid sick days laws in place and just five states and the District of Columbia have or will soon establish paid family and medical leave programs. As legislators and advocates prepare for 2018, here are the best and worst developments of 2017.

The Good.

Providing a Sufficient Amount of Leave. Twenty-three paid sick days bills introduced in 2017 would allow workers to accrue five or more days of sick time, which is in line with the majority of paid sick days laws across the country. For example, both the Maryland bill that was sent to the governor and the Rhode Island bill that passed the Senate allowed for a maximum of five days. Additionally, 22 paid leave bills provided for at least 12 weeks of leave, which is in line with New York’s groundbreaking paid family leave law that passed in 2016. This includes Washington state’s 2017 paid leave victory, which raised the bar by providing up to 16 weeks of combined paid family and medical leave, and up to 18 weeks under some circumstances.

Making Paid Leave Affordable for Low-Income Workers. Several state paid leave bills in 2017 had progressive wage replacement structures — a trend seen in 2016, including in D.C.’s paid leave law. “Progressive wage replacement” means that workers who are paid less have a greater portion of their income replaced when they take leave, compared to higher wage workers, which makes paid leave more accessible to people who most need the financial stability paid leave provides. For example, Washington state’s new law includes a progressive wage replacement structure in which lower-wage workers receive 90 percent of their wages while on leave. Again, this will mean that more lower-wage workers will be able to take the leave they need.

Recognizing the Diversity of Family Relationships. The definition of “family” in paid sick days bills this year extended beyond child, parent or spouse to include grandparents, grandchildren and siblings — whether biological, foster, adoptive, step, half or in-law — as well as domestic partners, guardians and those for whom the employee acts as a parent. Minnesota’s paid sick days bill also allowed employees to care for anyone with whom they have “the equivalent of a family relationship,” and up to one person designated annually. Similarly, Hawaii’s paid family leave bill enabled workers to select a “designated person” for whom they could take leave, regardless of a legal or blood relationship. Although many caregiving relationships continue to be left out, there is movement in the right direction.

The Bad.

Not Covering All of the Reasons People Need Paid Leave. Most paid leave bills this year covered leave for family care, one’s own serious health condition and the arrival of a new child, but some, such as Oklahoma’s bill, left out personal medical leave. Others, including bills in South Dakota and Texas, were even less inclusive because they did not include comprehensive family care leave and instead only provided for parental leave. These limitations disadvantage the majority of people who need paid family and medical leave, such as those with disabilities and those who do not intend to have children. When more than 75 percent of people who take unpaid family and medical leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act each year do so for family caregiving and medical reasons, that means millions are left behind.

Offering Harmful and Illusory Paid Leave Solutions. Although the increased interest in paid leave policies — evidenced by the number of bills introduced in 2017 — is encouraging, lawmakers in some states, such as Arkansas and Nevada, introduced inadequate measures that would not have meaningfully improved people’s access to paid family and medical leave. These include proposals that would give tax credits to employers that offer paid leave, which would most benefit those employers who already offer it, and proposals to create tax-deductible savings accounts for workers to use for their caregiving needs, which would not help people who do not have income to set aside or who face unanticipated caregiving needs.

The Ugly.

Discriminating Between Parental Caregivers. Again, parental-leave-only paid leave proposals are insufficient and leave too many people behind. They are even more harmful if they do not provide the same amount of leave to all parents. Most of this year’s paid parental leave bills did offer leave to all new parents, but some fell far short. For example, an Arkansas bill to provide paid leave to state government employees, as introduced, would have only provided time to female employees for the birth or adoption of a new child. Such exclusions reflect antiquated ideas about gender and caregiving roles, disregard the growing number of fathers who want to care for their new children, ignore the needs and experiences of same-sex parents, and exacerbate gender inequality.

Excluding People Who Work for Smaller Businesses. Paid sick days bills in Nevada, Hawaii, South Dakota and Maine only provided paid sick time to workers in businesses with 50 or more employees, even though people who work for smaller businesses have the same need for paid sick days as those who work for larger businesses. Many businesses with 50 or fewer employees also operate within the restaurant, child care and other industries that require public contact. A few paid leave bills left out smaller businesses too. These bills perpetuate inequities and fail to account for workers who move between small and large employers, and businesses that move above and below the size threshold. Every existing state paid leave program covers employers of all sizes.

As the momentum around paid sick days and paid family and medical leave policies continues, advocates and lawmakers should take note of the most promising paths and dangerous pitfalls in the current policy landscape. The bills introduced this year are a good indication of the opportunities and challenges ahead, and the details matter tremendously. Pursuing sound, responsible policies designed to satisfy the needs of all working people, businesses and our economy by building on the successes and lessons learned through existing policies must be a top priority. Families and communities across the country deserve no less.

Alex Baptiste and Vasu Reddy, policy counsels at the National Partnership, contributed to this post.