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Who really takes paid sick days? The answer will surprise you

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In April 2014, New York City became the largest U.S. jurisdiction to implement a paid sick days law. It requires private-sector and non-profit employers with 5 or more employees to provide paid sick days to enable workers to care for their own or a family member's illness or injury. The law covers about 3.9 million workers in the City, 1.4 million of whom did not have access to paid sick days prior to its passage.

Opponents of providing paid sick days to the mostly part-time or low-wage workers who previously lacked them made the usual objections to the law prior to its passage. They argued that it would impose a major cost burden on employers, leading to job losses in the City, and that workers would abuse the law by calling in sick whenever they wanted a day off.

To examine the impact of the law on New York City employers, we conducted a telephone survey between October 2015 and March 2016 of a random sample of 352 employers who were covered by the law. We also interviewed managers at 30 establishments in the City to explore the impact of the new law in more detail. By their own accounts, the vast majority of employers were able to adjust quite easily to the new law. The work of employees who were out sick for a day or two was typically covered by co-workers or put on hold until the employee returned. As a result, nearly 85 percent of employers reported no change in costs while another 1.5 percent reported a decrease. Most of the rest reported a cost increase of 2 percent or less. Only 2.7 percent of our respondents reported an increase of 3 percent or more.

As for abuse, the employers we surveyed reported virtually none. Fully 98 percent of respondents experienced no cases of abuse and only 0.3 percent reported more than three cases. Smaller employers (less than 50 employees) reported no abuse or a negligible amount. Even among larger employers, the overwhelming majority -- 90 percent or more -- reported no abuse. Similar, if less dramatic, results have been documented in previous studies of the impact of paid sick day laws on employers in San Francisco, Seattle and Connecticut.

Yet the general perception persists that American workers can't be trusted and will abuse their access to paid sick days. Indeed, Fast Company - a magazine that focuses on technology, business innovation, and design - recently published an article titled "How to Prevent Your Staff from Calling in Sick When They Aren't." The premise is that everyone 'knows,' as the article puts it, that "plenty of workers fib to get an extra day or two off."

We decided to exploit our data on New York City employers to see what might be behind the misperception that workers will take advantage of a paid sick days law to get unwarranted time off from work. We looked at which workers used the most sick days, and which used the least. The results surprised us.

The employers we surveyed in the leisure and hospitality industry, where large numbers of part-time workers gained access to paid sick days as a result of the 2014 New York City law, reported that 47 percent of their employees had used no paid sick days at all in the previous 12 months. Among workers in this industry that did use paid sick days, the average number of days used was just 2.7 -- just over half of the 5 days they are entitled to under the new law. Similarly, in the health care, education and social services sector, which also employs many part-time workers, employers reported that 29.4 percent of workers used no paid sick days. And for those that did use them, the average number of days was only 3.2.

In sharp contrast, employers in the information services industry reported that almost all (97.1 percent) of their employees made use of paid sick days; on average, these employees had used 5.6 days in the prior 12 months. Take-up was nearly as high in the Finance, insurance and real estate industry, where over four-fifths (80.6 percent) used paid sick days; the average number of days used was 5.4 days. These are the types of industries that Fast Company serves, but it is important to point out that this is not evidence of abuse: the employers responding to our survey reported minimal to no abuse of paid sick days. These industries employ mainly full-time workers who for many years have had more generous paid sick days benefits than those required by the New York City law; indeed the vast majority of them are using fewer days than they have available.

As a manager at a printing company we interviewed explained, workers "truly use it [paid sick days] as insurance." An employer at a small retail store echoed this view: "A big part of it is, 'What if I get the flu or get hit by a car? ... People want to save it up in case something serious happens."

What we and other researchers have found is that the fears of opponents to paid sick days are unfounded. Large increases in business costs have failed to materialize; abuse of paid sick days by employees is rare. Indeed, at the time of our survey a year-and-a-half after New York City's paid sick days law went into effect, 86 percent of employers indicated that they supported it.

*Ruth Milkman from CUNY co-wrote this piece