If you're a Nevadan, odds are roughly 50-50 that you don't get paid to stay home when you're sick.
Nevada has the third lowest share of private-sector employees with paid sick time, according to research by the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington, D.C.
Just 53 percent of Nevadans had paid sick days, leaving more than 455,000 people without sick leave, the group reported in March.
Kevin Miller, a senior research associate with the institute, blamed the high number of Nevadans without leave on the state's big contingent of hourly service workers in construction and hospitality. A May study from Rutgers University found that workers earning lower wages get less sick time than professionals. Just less than 25 percent of food-preparation workers receive paid sick time, while 87 percent of managers get the benefit.
But there's a nationwide push to change that by mandating sick time pay.
Proponents say the requirement is only fair and will protect public health. Opponents say governments have no business telling private employers what benefits to offer, particularly during an economic downturn.
Paid sick time isn't a new topic, but it's picking up steam, with advocacy efforts producing new laws around the country.
CITIES, STATES ENTER DEBATE
Sick-leave proposals came before Congress in 2007 and 2009, but they didn't go anywhere, mostly because of concern about how the regulations would affect business costs and employment.
Now, cities and states are taking the law into their own hands. Seattle's City Council last month voted to require companies with five or more workers to grant at least five paid days off per year to workers who are sick or who need to care for an ill relative. Seattle's action followed similar moves in the District of Columbia and San Francisco; a Connecticut state law takes effect in January.
For one thing, most women work now, so most families have no stay-at-home parents. When parents can't take time off to care for a sick child, it "creates some major work-family concerns," Miller said.
What's more, sick time has become a public-health issue, Miller said. The swine flu outbreak in 2009 sickened 50 million Americans and killed 10,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That epidemic gave the sick-leave movement new life.
"Workers or kids who go to school sick are putting their co-workers, fellow students and teachers at risk," Miller said. "The whole public suffers when people who are sick have to go to work and school."
Despite increasing national attention, sick time isn't getting much attention in Las Vegas.
Family Values @ Work, the national advocacy group behind the Seattle drive, has efforts going in 15 states, but Nevada's not one of them. Executive Director Ellen Bravo said the group, which is partnering with the AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, is focused on cities or states with existing grass-roots sick-leave initiatives. Those include Massachusetts, Georgia, New York City and Denver. Bravo said she didn't know of any such push in the Silver State.
Officials with Culinary Local 226, which represents 60,000 area leisure and hospitality workers, didn't respond to a request for comment on whether the issue is on their radar.
But Bravo said it's a matter of time before sick leave is mandated in Las Vegas.
"There's such support for this in the country. In places where people have felt the blows of the economic meltdown and attacks on working people's rights, this has emerged as a common-sense, cost-effective proposal that's often budget-neutral for governments," Bravo said. "A lot of people are saying they really need some relief. This might be something we could win that's a fairly modest measure with a huge impact, a measure that really does help people's financial security, as well as the public health."
NOT SO MODEST
For small-business owners and employment attorneys, mandated sick leave doesn't look modest.
Abuse of the Family and Medical Leave Act, a federal law that requires unpaid sick leave, is rampant enough, said Gregory Kamer, an employer defense attorney with law firm Kamer Zucker Abbott. Throw in paid sick time off, including leave to care for ill relatives, and the problem will get worse. Consider, Kamer said, how Clark County firefighters misused sick leave to boost average salaries into the six figures in 2010.
"You're not just shooting yourself in the foot. You might as well be cutting off your arm," Kamer said. "The reason they call it 'work' is because it's a four-letter word for a lot of people. It's something they've got to do. If you could simply say, 'I'm not feeling well today,' and bingo, you're off with pay, there's going to be abuse."
Randi Thompson, director of the Nevada chapter of the National Federation for Independent Business, said now's not the time to pile new mandates onto businesses, especially smaller companies with razor-thin profits. For restaurants and other small companies that rely on shift workers, allowing widespread sick time on short notice makes it tough to operate, burdening other employees with extra work and hurting customer service.
"If you look at regulations from the federal government, and you hear about groups like this trying to get involved in the workplace and interrupt relationships between employers and employees, it makes me scared to be a small-business owner," Thompson said. "When you have a small business, the lack of sales, the regulations and threats like these provide a very uncomfortable situation for any company wanting to hire."
What's even more uncomfortable, countered Bravo, is seeing a restaurant worker sneeze on your cheeseburger, or a child with the flu sitting next to your kid at school.
"Most people think this is exactly what government should do -- make sure there's some fairness and safety," Bravo said. "That's all this is, bringing the workplace into the 21st century. We don't have a work force of men with wives at home full time. We just need some rules to help people be good parents, or be good providers for their elderly parents, and at the same time be good employees. People don't want to have to choose between financial security on one hand, and their health or the health of their loves ones on the other."
Thompson called the flu argument a scare tactic. She added that most employers don't need government mandates to keep people safe or policies fair. It's expensive to train workers, so if it's at all financially possible, businesses already offer paid sick time to reduce turnover, she said. If not, she said, it's because they literally can't afford to.
Philosophical debate aside, how do sick-leave mandates actually work? It depends on whom you ask.
That Rutgers study, commissioned by Family Values @ Work, found that the flu and other public health hazards declined in San Francisco after a 2007 sick leave ordinance took effect. What's more, only 14 percent of employers reported a negative effect on profits, the report said.
But 2008 research from the California Chamber of Commerce found that a statewide sick-leave mandate like the one in San Francisco would kill 370,000 jobs over five years in the Golden State, and cost businesses nearly $60 billion in sales, with more than half of that loss coming among small companies.
Kamer said he doesn't think the Silver State, with its bigger economic problems including nation-leading unemployment, will experiment with sick-leave mandates anytime soon.
"It's a nonstarter in Nevada," Kamer said. "All this stuff sounds great, but at the end of the day, someone has to pay for it."
Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at email@example.com or 702-380-4512.