By Claire Savage | Associated Press
CHICAGO – When Joan Van is sick, she doesn’t get paid.
The server at the East St. Louis restaurant and single mother of three said she works double duty to earn the money if she or one of her children falls ill.
“You can’t show your kids that you’re breaking down because you’re tired and exhausted, because you have to keep going. You should. And if you don’t do it, who will?” she said.
Maybe she won’t have to for long. Comprehensive paid time off legislation requiring employers in Illinois to grant employees time off based on hours worked, which can be used for any reason, is ready for action by Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker, who said he will sign it.
Demanding paid vacation is rare in the US – only Maine and Nevada have similar laws – although common in other industrialized countries.
Fourteen states and Washington, D.C. require employers to offer paid sick leave through similar laws, though employees are only allowed to use it for health issues. What sets the new Illinois law apart is that employees don’t have to explain the reason for their absence, as long as they give notice in accordance with reasonable employer standards.
Maine and Nevada also let employees decide how to spend their time, but substantial exemptions apply. Maine’s earned paid time off law only applies to employers with more than 10 employees, and Nevada exempts companies with fewer than 50 employees. Illinois reaches almost all employees and has no limit based on company size.
Seasonal workers such as lifeguards will be exempt, as will federal employees or college students who hold non-full-time, temporary jobs for their university.
The legislation would come into effect on January 1, 2024. Employees accrue one hour of paid time off for every 40 hours worked up to a total of 40 hours, although the employer may offer more. Employees can start using the time when they have worked 90 days.
“Working families face enough challenges without fear of losing a day’s pay if life gets in the way,” Pritzker said on Jan. 11, when the bill passed both chambers.
Regulations in Cook County and Chicago already require employers to offer paid sick leave, and workers in those locations will continue to be covered by existing laws rather than the new law.
Johnae Strong, an administrative assistant at a small media company in Chicago, said paid sick leave helps her take care of her two children, a 10-year-old and a 6-year-old. But it would be helpful to extend the time to be used for any reason.
“Life happens,” she said, adding that she hopes Chicago will update its law to be more flexible, like state law.
The Chicago and Cook County ordinances served as pilot programs for the statewide legislation and reassured critics who predicted mass business closures that didn’t materialize, said Sarah Labadie, director of advocacy and policy at Women Employed, a nonprofit that has campaigned for paid furlough since 2008 and helped push legislation through.
“Of course strange things happened during the pandemic, but before the pandemic it wasn’t. Chicago was a booming economic engine,” she said.
Jehan Gordon-Booth, Peoria’s Democratic Representative, sponsored the bill, which she says will “help elevate work families” and “immediately help people.”
Newly elected House Republican leader Tony McCombie said the mandatory benefits could have an “adverse effect” on small businesses and nonprofits “in an already unfriendly business climate.”
“We all want a great work environment with a fair work-life balance,” she said in an emailed statement. “However, Senate Bill 208 failed to address the concerns of those who provided that work environment.”
For Leslie Allison-Seei, who runs a promotions and sweepstakes management company in DuPage County with her husband, caring for their three full-time employees is a priority, but it’s “difficult” to compete with companies’ paid time off policies.
“We are delighted that this is being approved and that it will be 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 just doing their very best to stay afloat.”
The small business advocacy group, the National Federation of Independent Business, opposes the bill, saying it “imposes a uniform mandate on all employers.”
Small business owners face high inflation, higher fuel and energy costs and a lack of qualified workers, and the requirement will be an “additional burden,” NFIB state director Chris Davis said in a statement following the bill’s passage. “The message from Illinois lawmakers is loud and clear: ‘Your small business is not essential.'”
However, the potential burden on small businesses clashes with the needs of their employees, especially those with children.
Van, a parent leader at Community Organizing and Family Issues, said she won’t get paid leave until she’s worked for a year. Knowing she’ll miss a day if she or one of her kids gets sick is a constant stress for the Belleville mom, but guaranteed PTO “would be great,” offering her peace of mind and easing some financial worries.
Molly Weston Williamson, a paid leave policy expert and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress think tank, called the Illinois legislation “a huge step in the right direction.”
In addition to establishing employees’ rights to paid time off, the bill prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who take it. This is essential to ensure that “low-income workers or other people who are more vulnerable are really, practically able to take their time,” Williamson said.
Paid time off is both a labor rights issue and a public health issue, Williamson said. Service workers like Van who handle food and drink without paid leave are more likely to go to work sick and send their kids to daycare sick, “then they make everyone else sick,” she said.
“Especially now that we’re more than three years into a global pandemic, I think we all have a much better understanding of the ways all of our health is connected,” Williamson said.
Savage serves on the Corps for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a non-profit national service program that places journalists on local newsrooms to report on undercover issues.