By Tracey I. Levy
A plethora of paid leave laws currently plague multi-jurisdiction employers and they seem to multiply with each passing year. The concept of paid sick leave, which originated in San Francisco in 2007, has spread to 16 states and at least 25 localities across the country.
Sick Leave Isn’t Just for Being Sick, And Other Complications
“Sick” leave as defined by many of these laws is a far cry from typical employer policies in that usage often extends beyond an employee’s own illness and injury to include:
- routine well visits for medical care;
- care of an employee’s family member (in the broadest sense);
- “safe” time for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault or similar crimes; and
- coverage when a school, childcare center or place of employment is closed due to a public health emergency.
Particularly challenging for employers are the differences between the laws, in terms of leave time granted, permitted uses, accruals, carryover and requisite notice. So while the laws consistently state that an employer can maintain its own sick leave policy provided it meets all the elements of the legally-mandated sick leave, the varying requirements collectively make it nearly impossible to have one fully-compliant one-size-fits-all policy.
Maine Approached It Differently
Enter Maine with its paid personal leave law. It was refreshing in its simplicity. Rather than adding an ever more expansive list of reasons why employees could use paid leave, the Maine law says the reason is irrelevant. If you have more than 10 employees, full-time, part-time or otherwise, then you must provide them with up to 40 hours of paid leave, per year, for any purpose, provided they give reasonable notice. While there surely are employers of that size who do not already provide 5 days of paid time off per year, a great many provide that much or more. For those with existing paid time off policies, tailoring those policies to comply with the new Maine law should be relatively easy.
The only element of the law that deviates from typical employer practice (but aligns with most of the paid sick leave laws), is that employees need to be able to carryover up to 40 hours of accrued, unused paid leave from one calendar year to the next. When not subject to legal mandates, private sector employers typically restrict carryover of paid time off to a fixed number of days and require that the carryover days be used within a duration of three to six months into the new year. Employers may incur a cost when carryover is mandated, in that accrued days may need to be reflected as a pending liability in their business records. Employers are therefore disinclined to allow too much in the way of carryover. While the Maine carryover mandate may require employers to modify their vacation or other paid time off policies, overall the law is simpler than the approach taken in other states and localities.
And Then Maine Complicated Things
But now, things have changed a bit. Maine’s governor just signed a new law, which takes effect January 1, 2023, that amends the state’s wage statute to require employers to pay out employees for accrued, unused vacation upon termination. Other states, like Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Illinois, have similar legal requirements, which thereby discourage employers from granting vacation time in a lump sum at the outset of the year, and deny employees the flexibility that comes with front-loaded vacation time.
Lesson for Legislators
Adopting ever more prescriptive paid time off laws sows confusion and impedes uniformity in approach for multi-jurisdiction employers. As Maine demonstrated with its 2021 paid personal leave law, states can achieve the overarching goal of granting employees the assurance of paid days off to manage their personal lives, while minimizing the strictures that impede employers’ ability to draft consistent policies and manage their workforce.