The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, October 21, 2016

New sick leave rule to benefit millions

By The Building Tradesman

By Mark Gruenberg

PAI Staff Writer

New pro-worker rules, announced in late September and the beginning of October by Obama administration agencies, have the potential to benefit millions of workers in coming years. Predictably, radical right House Republicans screamed about them.

The rules would particularly aid low-wage and exploited workers, said Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, whose agency unveiled one key final rule, ordering firms that get federal contracts to establish paid sick and family leave for their employees.

That would give 1.15 million workers up to 56 hours yearly of paid sick leave, DOL calculates. More than half of them -- 594,000 -- right now get no sick leave at all. The rule takes effect Jan. 1.

"Part of the basic bargain of America is that if you work hard, you should be able to take care of your family,” Perez said when he announced the final paid leave rule.

“Paid sick leave helps workers recover from illness, or be there for their families, whether it’s to take an elderly parent to the doctor or to stay home with a young child with a fever. It allows working families to focus on what really matters most without having to worry about the next paycheck.”

The department’s fact sheet on sick leave emphasizes that it would benefit everybody.  “Whether it’s a coworker in the office or a server in a restaurant, when workers have no choice but to work when they are sick, they run the risk of exposing colleagues and customers to contagious illness,” DOL says.

Paid sick leave has been a particular cause for female workers and workers with families, so they can care for sick kids or elderly and ailing parents without having to fear losing their jobs as a result.

“Today’s rule puts families first and ensures federal contract workers will be paid when they take time to recover from an illness or to care for family,” said veteran pro-worker Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the prime congressional champion of paid sick leave and equal pay for equal work.

But DeLauro also emphasized a president can go only so far in helping workers, as Obama did with his executive order that in turn led to the federal rule.

Paid sick leave for all depends on Congress, and the Republican-run Congress has sat on the veteran congresswoman’s paid sick leave legislation for more than a decade.

“While hundreds of thousands” of workers “will benefit from this new rule, an estimated 41 million Americans go to work each day without the safety net of paid sick leave. Being the only advanced country in the world that does not guarantee paid sick leave is not a badge of honor, it is a call to action and an opportunity to lead,” added Debra Ness, executive director of the National Partnership for Women and Families. She urged Congress to act.

The Labor Department said the paid sick leave rule would cover all workers now covered by the Davis-Bacon Act – for construction workers – the Service Contract Act and federal concession contracts.

It will also cover workers subject to minimum wage and overtime pay laws, including those who are “exempt” from overtime pay. But the new rule will not cover workers under union contracts that already provide at least 56 hours of paid sick leave yearly, pending the end of the contract or Jan. 1, 2020, whichever comes first.

A second final rule, from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), mandates that firms send it wage data, broken down by gender, race and ethnicity, though not by individual workers, starting in March, 2018. It applies to firms with at least 100 workers.

And the Bureau of Labor Statistics wants to reinstitute a survey, dumped in 2005, about “contingent workers” – but update it to include firms in the so-called “gig economy.”

"More than 50 years after pay discrimination became illegal it remains a persistent problem for too many Americans," said EEOC Chair Jenny Yang. "Collecting pay data is a significant step forward in addressing discriminatory pay practices. This information will assist employers in evaluating their pay practices to prevent pay discrimination and strengthen enforcement of our federal anti-discrimination laws." 

Predictably the right-wing Republicans controlling the House Education and the Workforce Committee blasted both rules. “The administration is bombarding employers with more partisan rules and regulations,” committee chairman John Kline (R-Minn.), and Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) charged. “Small businesses are being hit in all directions.”

Major business groups had no immediate comment, but both the Chamber of Commerce and the radical right National Federation of Independent Business have sued in federal court to stop another DOL pro-worker rule, expanding eligibility for overtime pay.

The third proposal, which is just getting started, is designed to get a handle on the extent – and the exploitation of workers – in the so-called “gig economy.” The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics said that after a decade of no data, it’s time to learn about contingent workers and their conditions, again, by reviving its contingent worker supplement to its frequent surveys of working conditions.

The agency is also adding the “gig economy” workers to its proposal. Independent economists have recognized that those workers – Uber and Lyft drivers, AirBnB workers and the like – are extremely exploited.