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Sick Leave Mandate Is A Workplace Headache

“I totaled my wife’s jeep in a collision with a cow,” one employee reported to his boss. He was sorry to say that, as a result, he would be unable to attend work that day.

A 2004 survey by CareerBuilder.com asked employers for the most unusual excuses they had heard. In addition to the cow story, employers mentioned hearing “My cat unplugged my alarm clock” and “A hitman was looking for me.”

So which of those counts as a valid use of a sick day? That is a question employers in New York City may soon be forced to answer. A bill in front of the City Council, Int 1059-2009, would require all employers in the city to allow employees to accrue paid sick leave. Depending on hours worked, employees at businesses with 10 or more employees could earn up to nine days of paid sick leave annually, while those at businesses with fewer than 10 employees could earn as many as five days paid leave.

The bill states that the mandatory leave is intended to give workers time to “take care of their own health needs or the health needs of members of their families or to deal with health and safety issues arising from domestic or sexual violence.”

Many employees would use the time off for those purposes and those purposes alone. But others would not. When CareerBuilder.com asked U.S. workers if they had ever called in sick when they were actually fine, 35 percent said yes. A quarter of the workers surveyed said they consider sick days the equivalent of paid vacation days.

New York Times writer Jim Dwyer observed that if the bill were to become law, it “would bring the city into the workplace equivalent of the domestic dispute: intimate, furious, with the truth tied up in tangles.” Dwyer cited the case of a restaurant worker, Guillermo Barrera, who said he had lost his job of seven years after he left work to go to the hospital, where he remained for three days. His boss told a different story. Barrera had disappeared without any explanation, leaving her in the lurch, she said. She heard reports that he didn’t intend to come back and she “had to take someone else.”

A policy that rewards the least honest 25 percent of workers with extra vacation time and spurs endless he-said-she-said arguments between employees and employers is the wrong way to go. That’s why, at Palisades Hudson, we do things differently. We have no paid “sick days.” Employees here receive a minimum of 10 paid vacation days and three paid personal days per year. Personal days can be used to stay home with a fever, or a headache, or just the sniffles; to care for a sick relative or friend; or to go to a ballgame. That way, I don’t have to play school nurse, deciding who is sick enough to go home or stay home.

Of course I recognize that sometimes employees may be sick more than three times a year. Vacation days can be used in place of personal days, and we allow a reasonable amount of unpaid time off when necessary. Employees also can arrange to make up missed time on a weekend or other scheduled time off.

The system works well for us, as evidenced by our ability to attract a very talented and hard-working staff, and to keep them here with very low turnover. Malingering co-workers are bad for morale. Here, everybody uses their paid time off as they see fit, and nobody has any reason to complain about it.

Effective though it is, it is unclear whether our system would fit within the proposed New York City guidelines. The bill allows businesses to substitute other types of paid time off for sick days, so long as the required amount of time is available for the same purposes. Our practice of allowing vacation days to substitute for personal days probably would satisfy the bill’s requirements, but the devil always is in the details. It remains to be seen how the requirement would be enforced if the legislation is approved.

I do know one thing: This is yet another reason for me to be glad that our New York office is in the suburbs rather than inside the city limits.

Job applicants who would not fit with our culture sometimes balk when I explain our sick-leave policy. One woman walked out of my office as soon as she heard the terms, explaining that she had made use of her sick days for the past 20 years and had no intention of stopping now. Each of us probably was better off without the other.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s most recent book, The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Anyone Can Achieve Wealth,” and Chapter 19, “Assisting Aging Parents.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s previous book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55.

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