Our Turn: Rachel Flum and Leanne Barett: New sick-leave policy in R.I.

By Rachel Flum and Leanne Barrett

July 1 is an exciting day for Rhode Island. This is the day that 100,000 workers will start earning sick leave under the state’s new Healthy and Safe Families and Workplaces Act, thanks to the hard work of a broad coalition of local businesses, individuals, community organizations and the bills’ sponsors, Sen. Maryellen Goodwin and Rep. Aaron Regunberg, both Democrats from Providence.

The new law, passed by the General Assembly during the 2017 legislative session, means that workers will not have to go to work when they are sick, children will not have to stay home from school to care for younger siblings who have a stomach bug, and domestic violence victims will not lose their jobs due to missing work to seek help. The state should see economic returns in higher job retention and lower use of emergency rooms.

The law allows full and part-time workers to accrue paid time off based on how much they work. Workers earn one hour of paid sick and safe time for every 35 hours they work. The sick and safe time can be used by employees when they are sick or need time off for preventive health care (e.g. a routine colonoscopy) or to care for themselves or for a family member who is sick or needs preventive health care. This paid leave is also available for victims of domestic violence who need time off to address complicated issues.

For 2018, full-time workers can earn up to three days. The number of days increases to four days in 2019 and five days in 2020. Employers that have fewer than 18 workers must allow employees time off, but are not required to pay workers for this time. Many of the workers who will benefit from this law work in low-wage jobs where benefits are limited.

Rhode Island is joining eight other states, including our neighbors Connecticut and Massachusetts, and 40 localities where paid sick days policies have been implemented. Paid sick leave is part of a strong package of programs that can ensure state economies and families thrive.

Employers will benefit from the new law, according to a cost-benefit study done by the Institute of Women’s Policy Research. Employers realize savings through reduced instances of the flu (and other contagious diseases) in the workplace, meaning fewer workers get sick and need to take time out of work. They also benefit from lower turnover rates for employees.

Paid sick leave is an especially important benefit for working parents. As every parent knows, almost all children experience routine illnesses each year (flu, strep throat, croup) that require them to stay home from school or child-care. About 15 percent of children have chronic health issues that require frequent monitoring and ongoing care. In addition, parents need to ensure their children receive the prescribed 12 preventive pediatric visits for recommended immunizations and screenings before age three and annual visits thereafter.

Pregnant women also have significant preventive health care needs. Current recommendations call for 15 prenatal visits for uncomplicated pregnancies. When complications arise, additional prenatal appointments are often necessary.

The new paid sick and safe days law allows workers to stay home when they are sick, so coworkers don’t fall ill; it supports parents who need to stay home with a sick child so other children in child care or school stay healthy; and gives parents the time to get the immunizations that their children need to protect them and their friends. The new law is not only a significant benefit to the hard-working employees, but to our entire community.

Rachel Flum is the executive director of the Economic Progress Institute. Leanne Barrett is senior policy analyst at Rhode Island Kids Count.