Oregon’s Legislature just passed a law requiring employers to offer five days of paid sick leave to their employees per year, making Oregon the fourth state to adopt sick leave mandates for employers, following Connecticut, California, and Massachusetts. At the federal level, President Obama called for a national paid sick leave law in his 2015 State of the Union address.
But while labor activists treat paid sick leave like a proxy war against Wall Street, the casualties are all on Main Street. In practice, paid sick leave mandates like Oregon’s fall short of supporters’ expectations and are startlingly ineffective at achieving their basic goal of keeping sick employees from coming to work.
Only about 10 studies have attempted to measure the impact of existing paid sick leave regulations, which took off after San Francisco adopted a sick leave ordinance in 2006. A Freedom Foundation paper, which was informally reviewed by academic and professional economists, evaluated the existing research and came to some surprising conclusions.
First, while supporters argue that public health demands mandating paid sick leave, workers come to work sick just as often with a mandatory paid sick leave policy as they do without one. Of the five studies to examine the effect of mandatory paid sick leave laws on workplace illness, four found no reduction. One study for the Seattle City Auditor noted that the lack of any decline in workplace illness “seemingly contradicts the intent of the [Seattle] ordinance.”
Second, mandatory paid sick leave laws do nothing to reduce turnover. One methodologically questionable study of Connecticut’s paid sick leave law by a pro-sick leave advocacy group reported a slight decrease in turnover, while a more credible study of Seattle’s paid sick leave ordinance by the University of Washington reported effectively no changes in turnover.
The result should not come as a surprise. As one small business owner in San Francisco — who offered paid sick leave — explained, “Since the new ordinance, employees will have the same benefit no matter where they work. There’s less of an incentive to stay and work for me.”
Third, consumers, workers, and employers are all negatively affected by mandatory paid sick leave policies. Employer surveys indicate that affected businesses frequently respond to paid sick leave laws by increasing prices, decreasing employee benefits and hours, and limiting expansion. Even after taking steps to offset the additional expenses, many businesses report reduced profitability.
Fourth, studies tend to exaggerate employer support for mandatory paid sick leave laws. All four of the studies that asked employers whether they supported the mandate found a majority of employers were supportive. In each case, however, a majority of employers were already mostly or completely in compliance with the law and had to make few changes in response, with the rate ranging from 50 to 89 percent.
While it is hardly surprising that unaffected businesses support a mandate that places additional costs on their competitors, most businesses that had to create new or modify existing policies appear to be opposed to paid sick leave mandates. Many of these businesses also report significant difficulty implementing the mandates.
Lastly, some paid sick leave laws are designed to promote union organizing. Paid sick leave statutes in at least San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C. and Oregon’s new law contain provisions that allow labor unions to waive sick leave requirements in collective bargaining.
Such statutes allow unions to approach non-union employers and offer to waive the sick leave requirements in exchange for the employer’s cooperation in unionizing employees. Studies of San Francisco and Seattle’s sick leave ordinances indicate the waivers are frequently used.
But if paid sick leave is a basic workers’ right, as labor activists contend, why should union workers be the only ones exempt?
Overall, the evidence indicates that requiring employers to provide paid sick leave benefits produces few appreciable benefits and even raises costs.
Oregon’s course may be set, but it’s not too late for other states and the federal government to take heed of the evidence and approach paid sick leave mandates with a healthy dose of skepticism.