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Groups Gear Up For Fight Over Paid Sick Days at Place of Work

By Steven Greenhouse

With the Democratic Congress expected to move quickly to raise the minimum wage, many Democrats, women’s organizations and liberal groups are gearing up for a fight on another workplace issue: paid sick days.

Supporters point to studies showing that nearly half of American workers do not receive paid sick days. But many Republicans and businesses complain that such legislation would impose another mandate on companies, driving up their costs.

Advocates of paid sick leave cite workers like Naomi Nakamura, who lost a week’s pay when her 103-degree fever forced her to miss five days from her job at a video rental store in San Francisco.

Nakamura said, “Some employees didn’t want to lose their pay, so they showed up for work even though they had strep throat, and they just spread it to other people.”

Last month, San Francisco voters approved a measure requiring all employers to provide paid sick days, making it the first jurisdiction in the nation with such a requirement. The vote was 61 percent to 39 percent.

Now supporters are planning a big push for sick day legislation not just in Congress but in Maine, Maryland, Montana and several other states.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, introduced a bill last year to require companies with at least 15 employees to provide seven paid sick days a year, but that bill languished in the Republican-led Congress. Now that Democrats have won control of Congress, Kennedy, the incoming chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, is more optimistic.

“It has a wildfire of support across the country,” he said. “When you talk to workers, this is, besides an increase in the minimum wage, the most important issue for these families. This is a families issue. This is a values issue.”

Kennedy’s bill, like a House bill sponsored by Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, would provide a total of seven paid sick days not just when workers are ill but when members of their families are ill — or need to go to the doctor for checkups and tests.

A big problem with not having paid sick days, Kennedy said, is that many parents, not wanting to miss work, let their sick children go to school, spreading their illnesses. Kennedy said his bill would guarantee paid sick days to 66 million who do not now have them.

Business lobbyists plan to fight the effort.

“Supporters of legislation like this complain about unfunded mandates in education when it comes to No Child Left Behind, but they don’t hesitate to impose unfunded mandates on employers,” said Randel Johnson, vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits at the United States Chamber of Commerce. “The employer community is not going to roll over on this issue.”

Susan Eckerly, vice president for federal policy at the National Federation of Independent Business, said, “I could see where this would pass the House, but if you put this on the floor of the Senate, it would be a good candidate for a filibuster.”