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Business Groups Oppose Emergency H1N1 Paid Sick Leave

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Public health officials say the H1N1 flu pandemic is exacerbated by employees going into work sick because they don't get paid time off. But a representative from the business community told Congress on Tuesday to stay out of it.

House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) is pushing an emergency bill that would require employers with more than 15 workers to provide up to five days of paid sick leave. That's about the length of time it takes for H1N1 sufferers to stop being contagious, according to American Public Health Association head Georges Benjamin, who testified before Miller's committee Tuesday.

The emergency bill doesn't go to the lengths that labor groups, not to mention Miller himself, want. It expires in two years, only applies to workers with "flu-like symptoms" and leaves the decision to grant time off up to the employer. But business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Businesses, strenuously oppose the bill anyway.

Testifying on behalf of the National Association of Manufacturers Tuesday, A. Bruce Clarke, who runs his own 1,000-member business lobby in North Carolina, told Miller's committee that most businesses already have comparable or more generous paid leave programs, so why bother?

"While some employers may not have taken specific action in response to the H1N1 outbreak, these employers are clearly the exception to the widespread practices taking place today," Clarke said in his prepared testimony. "These types of creative approaches are the result of flexibility that employers have to develop policies that best fit their workforce needs."

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 39 percent of workers in the private sector do not receive paid sick leave.

The "creative approaches" Clarke cited include telecommuting, advancing sick days from next year and allowing employees to make up missed hours with additional shifts. But most of his solutions wouldn't do anything to protect blue-collar or service-industry workers living from paycheck to paycheck.

Miller wasn't moved by the manufacturers' opposition. "Let's face some simple facts. When you're struggling to make ends meet you're going to do everything possible to not miss a day's pay," he said. "The lack of paid sick leave encourages workers who may have H1N1 to hide their symptoms and come to work sick, spreading infection to coworkers, customers and the public. This isn't good for our nation's public health or for businesses."

The emergency bill wouldn't obviate the need for a permanent and comprehensive paid leave policy, Miller said. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) has roughly 100 cosponsors on her Healthy Families Act, which would mandate seven days of annual paid sick leave not limited to the flu, and Miller said he will continue working with DeLauro to build support for it. In the meantime, he said, the emergency bill can function as "a circuit breaker needed to get this virus under control."

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) is developing a Senate version of Miller's emergency legislation. Though his bill would also sunset after two years, Dodd said last week that it will be based on the Healthy Families Act, which means it would leave the decision to take up to seven paid sick days up to the worker, not the company.

"Families shouldn't have to choose between staying healthy and making ends meet," Dodd said in a statement last week. "But if staying home means you don't get paid, that's an impossibility, especially for families struggling to make ends meet in this tough economy."

The business community, however, seems to think it can beat back any bill, including Miller's. One tactic they don't hesitate to use involves threatening benefit and job cuts.

"If employers are mandated to provide a certain level of a specific leave benefit, they must decide whether to add that on top of existing employer leave policies or to reduce the existing in order to meet the new mandate," Clarke said Tuesday.

Laying some groundwork for lobbying should the bill keep gaining steam, Clarke suggested that the federal government "encourage" businesses to provide their own H1N1 solutions, and argued that any federal law should preempt state and local laws on paid sick leave, many of which are tougher than the proposed legislation.

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