Understanding State Sick Leave Laws


NEW YORK—State and local laws requiring employers to provide paid sick time are growing across the country. California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., currently mandate paid sick time, while at least one county and 17 cities have enacted similar laws.

Although the existing laws across the country follow a somewhat standard structure, specific provisions do differ, such as:
• Which workers are covered.
• The number of hours of paid sick time that can be earned, carried forward and used.
• Which family members can be cared for when using sick time.

The five existing state-level laws require, at a minimum, that employers provide eligible employees with paid sick time to use for their own illnesses, to care for their ill spouses or children, and to use for “safe time” purposes related to domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. The laws share a similar definition of “child”: a biological, foster or adopted child; stepchild; legal ward; or child for whom the worker has assumed the responsibilities of parenthood.

The laws also uniformly provide that workers begin to earn paid sick time at the start of employment but cannot use it until the 90th day of employment, or the 680th hour of employment in the case of Connecticut. Employees can carry forward varying amounts of unused sick leave, but states allow employers to place restrictions on its use.

California and Connecticut do not provide for a private right of action, but Massachusetts, Oregon and Washington, D.C., do. Only Oregon allows paid sick time to be used to bond with a new child or deal with the death of a family member. Some states have separate laws that govern child bonding and similar family needs.

Lack of a uniform approach can make record-keeping difficult for multi-state employers and present obstacles to employer compliance.

Marrying existing employer policies, especially those that provide merged paid time off (PTO), with the law’s mandate for specific amounts of sick time can offer challenges for employers. For example, recent amendments to the Washington, D.C. law now require employers to provide sick time to temporary and part-time workers, something not many employers did in the past, as well as unlimited annual carryover and use of sick time.

In the absence of a standardized framework, many national employers are crafting their own compliance solutions. For example, Front-loading,or placing the maximum number of hours of sick time accruable under any existing state law into an employee’s account on January 1 and making it available for use 90-days into employment, is permissible in all state-level jurisdictions and many large employers are doing this. Employers are finding that accrual, carryover and jurisdictional issues are such a challenge that some have elected take this approach.

In advising employers on how best to comply with state sick-leave laws, some legal counsel have highlighted the importance of understanding the specific provisions of a company’s own state law. In Connecticut, for example, the statute offers the flexibility for employers to give paid time off in lieu of complying with the accrual and use requirements. This can be done through a handbook provision and may be the best course of action for an employer trying to comply with a similar law. Before doing so, however, it is highly recommended that you discuss various approaches with legal counsel who are familiar with each state’s laws.

Hedley Lawson, Contributing Editor
Managing Partner
Aligned Growth Partners, LLC
(707) 217-0979