Organized business’s knee-jerk opposition to paid sick days legislation

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions is holding its Mother’s Day hearing today, and the main subject is paid sick leave, something every working mother needs. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) have introduced a bill, the Healthy Families Act (S. 984/H.R. 1876), to mandate that every employee receive at least seven days of paid time off for illness each year. Everywhere in the civilized world, employees have the right to at least some minimum amount of paid leave when they or their children are sick or when they have to see a doctor—everywhere except in the United States.

The organized U.S. business community—represented by the Washington lobbyists and dozens of giant trade associations—fiercely opposes giving American workers this right.

Why? Because business owners don’t want to be told what to do by anybody, least of all by the government. They consider themselves entitled to force employees to choose between working while sick, taking leave without pay (if the employees are lucky enough to have the right to take unpaid leave), or being fired.

At this morning’s hearing, the business community was represented by the Society for Human Resources Management, which reflexively takes the position that workers should not have legal rights; they should not, for example, have the legal right not to be fired without just cause, they should not have the right to a minimum wage, they should not have the right to unpaid leave to care for family members, they should not have the legal right to advance notice that their office, store or factory will be shut down, etc. The SHRM position is that wages, benefits, and protections should be left to the whim of the employer, or in fancier terms, to market forces.

As usual, the SHRM witness is testifying this morning that her business treats its employees well, giving its employees with three years or more of service 20 days of paid leave. The implication is that left alone, businesses will treat employees as well as they can afford to, and everything will be for the best.

But this benign view is not true. Absent legislation, businesses will treat employees only as well as they want to, even if they can afford to do much more. Even businesses whose CEOs are paid millions of dollars a year can deny all or most of their workers any paid sick leave at all. This problem is so widespread that about 40 percent of the private-sector workforce has no right to even a single day of paid sick leave. That’s 40 million people—mostly low-wage workers who are barely scraping by—who go unpaid if they get sick or if they have to take time off to care for a sick family member.

The SHRM witness argues that a mandate is “inflexible,” and that’s true. It should be inflexible; the whole point is to guarantee a basic, minimum right to workers—most of whom are women—that they need very badly. Nothing would prevent a business from doing more, as the SHRM witness’ business already does.

SHRM’s alternative arguments against the paid sick leave legislation are altogether astonishing. SHRM’s witness argues that providing generous benefits is a competitive advantage to her company that would be lost if every business were compelled by law to provide them, ignoring that the bill’s mandate is for only seven days of paid leave, rather than the 20 days her business provides, leaving plenty of competitive advantage.

“We provide generous paid leave so that we can continue to be an employer of choice for employees and applicants in our area. What we do not want is a government-imposed paid leave mandate to take away our competitive edge over other employers.”

And finally, she argues that it is somehow degrading to be told what to do by the government:

“Organizations such as ours that are already extremely successful with flexible workplace outcomes should not be brought down to the mediocre level that regulatory approaches would be trying to get not-so-well-run companies up to achieving.”

The silliness of these arguments is pretty good evidence that the business community has no good reason (no economic reason) to oppose the Healthy Families Act. Their opposition is ideological: They own the businesses, and no one has the right to tell them (the 1 percent) how to treat their workers—not even a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.