WASHINGTON, D.C. | November 17, 2009 -
Our topic today is a timely one, with employers, workers, and their families facing the uncertainty of a widespread influenza outbreak with wide ranging effects.
Unfortunately, the uncertainty I mentioned is pervasive. Even the scope of the outbreak is unknown. The Washington Post reported on Friday that “total H1N1 cases in the United States range from 14 million to 34 million, and total deaths range from 2,500 to 6,100.”
Adding to the confusion, the Administration’s early estimates of vaccine availability were significantly overstated, resulting in long lines and shortages while vaccine production ramped up.
Nonetheless, Americans are coping with the situation as well as they can. From schools and workplaces to shopping centers and transit systems, we are seeing the implementation of simple safeguards such as using hand sanitizer and limiting person-to-person contact in an effort to reduce exposure.
We’re here this morning to talk specifically about workplace policies designed to limit the spread of H1N1, including the availability of sick leave for workers who fall ill.
To understand these issues, we need a bit of context. We should know that in 2008, nearly all full-time employees in the United States – fully 93 percent – had access to paid sick leave. A majority of part-time workers have paid sick leave as well, although 82 percent of these workers are employed part-time voluntarily in order to have the flexibility to manage work and family obligations.
We all know federal mandates are particularly onerous for small businesses, so it’s important to look specifically at this category of employers as we consider new federal policies. The data tell us that 76 percent of all workers in small businesses with fewer than 50 employees have paid illness leave, while other employers have informal plans – for example, granting paid time off for health-related concerns on a case-by-case basis.
We must also be mindful of the existing Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides unpaid leave for medical reasons – and carries a host of notification and certification procedures of its own.
With so many workers already having access to a variety of sick leave options, we need to look very carefully at proposals to add a new layer of federal leave mandates.
A number of questions remain unanswered. How would these paid leave requirements interact with existing leave policies? What kind of notification and certification would be required? And is it a wise idea to put employers in the business of diagnosing medical conditions and deciding when workers should be sent home, and when they’re well enough to return to work?
The H1N1 outbreak is a serious concern, and employers across the country are taking steps already to minimize infection and prevent the spread of the flu in their workplaces. This is clearly new and unknown territory, and we must tread very carefully as we attempt to minimize the spread of H1N1 while avoiding the creation of confusing, duplicative, and costly new mandates that could harm the very workers we’re trying to protect.
I look forward to hearing from our witnesses and gaining a better understanding of the existing policies and practices, and how they’re being applied to the current influenza outbreak.
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