Illinois poised to mandate paid leave for nearly all workers

When Joan Van is sick, she doesn’t get paid. The waitress at the East St. Louis-area restaurant and a single mother of three, said she works double duty to make up money when she or one of her children gets sick.

“You can’t let your kids see you break down because you’re tired and exhausted, because you have to keep trying. You have to. And if you don’t, who will? She said.

You may not have to for much longer. Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker, who has said he will sign it, is ready to adopt expansive paid leave legislation that requires Illinois employers to give workers time off based on hours worked, to be used for any reason.

Requiring paid vacation is rare in the US, with only Maine and Nevada having similar laws, though it is common in other industrialized nations.

Fourteen states and Washington, DC require employers to offer paid sick leave through similar laws, though employees can only use it for health-related issues. What sets the new Illinois law apart is that workers won’t have to explain the reason for their absence as long as they give notice in accordance with the employer’s reasonable standards.

Maine and Nevada also allow workers to decide how to use their time, but substantial exemptions apply. Maine’s Earned and Paid Leave law only applies to employers with more than 10 employees, and Nevada’s exempts businesses with fewer than 50. Illinois’ will cover nearly all employees and has no limit based on size of the company

Seasonal workers, such as lifeguards, will be exempt, as will federal employees or college students who don’t have temporary full-time jobs for their college.

The legislation would go into effect on January 1, 2024. Employees will accrue one hour of paid leave for every 40 hours worked up to a total of 40 hours, though the employer may offer more. Employees can start using time once they have worked for 90 days.

“Working families face enough challenges without the worry of losing a day’s wages when life gets in the way,” Pritzker said Jan. 11, when the bill passed both houses.

Ordinances in Cook County and Chicago already require employers to offer paid sick leave, and workers in those places will continue to be covered under existing laws instead of the new bill.

Johnae Strong, an administrative worker at a small media company in Chicago, said the paid sick leave helps her care for her two children, a 10-year-old and a 6-year-old. But it would be useful to extend the time to be used for any reason.

“Life happens,” he said, adding that he hopes Chicago updates its law to be more flexible, like the state bill.

The Chicago and Cook County ordinances served as pilot programs for state legislation and appeased critics who predicted mass business closures that didn’t come to fruition, said Sarah Labadie, director of advocacy and policy for Women Employed, a nonprofit organization for-profit who has fought for paid vacations since 2008 and helped push through the legislation.

“Obviously some weird things happened during the pandemic, but before the pandemic that wasn’t the case. Chicago was a thriving economic engine,” she said.

Peoria Democratic Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth sponsored the bill, which she said would “help encourage working families” and “immediately help people.”

Newly elected House Republican Leader Tony McCombie said the mandatory benefits could have a “detrimental effect” on small businesses and nonprofit organizations “in an already hostile business climate.”

“We all want a great work environment with an equal balance between work and life,” he said in an emailed statement. “However, Senate Bill 208 did not address the concerns of those who provide that work environment.”

For Leslie Allison-Seei, who runs a sweepstakes management and promotion business with her husband in DuPage County, taking care of her three full-time employees is a priority, but it’s "difficult" compete with corporate paid time off policies.

“We are delighted that this is approved and that it is signed. But it’s also kind of scary because, you know, a week’s time, I don’t know what that would do to our business,” Allison-Seei said. “I think a lot of companies are doing the best they can to stay afloat.”

The small business advocacy organization, the National Federation of Independent Business, opposes the bill, saying that "imposes a single mandate for all employers".

Small business owners face steep inflation, higher fuel and power costs, and a lack of skilled workers, and the requirement will be a "additional charge", NFIB State Director Chris Davis said in a statement following the bill’s passage. “The message from Illinois legislators is loud and clear: ‘Your small business is not essential.'”

However, the potential burden on small businesses clashes with the needs of their workers, particularly those with children.

Van, a parent leader with Community Organizing and Family Issues, said she doesn’t get paid leave until she’s worked for a year. Knowing that she will miss a payday when she or one of her children gets sick is a constant stress for the Belleville mother, but the PTO guaranteed "It would be amazing"offering you peace of mind and relieving some financial worries.

Molly Weston Williamson, an expert on paid leave policy and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress think tank, called the Illinois legislation “a big step in the right direction.”

In addition to establishing workers’ right to paid time off, the bill prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for using it. This is key to making sure that “low-income workers or other people who are more vulnerable can really, practically, take the time,” Williamson said.

Paid leave is as much a labor rights issue as it is a public health issue, Williamson said. Service workers like Van, who handle food and beverage without paid time off, are more likely to come to work sick and send their children to daycare sick, “at which point they make everyone else sick,” she said.

“Especially now that we are more than three years into a global pandemic, I think we all have a much more visceral understanding of the ways in which all of our health is tied together,” Williamson said.

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