Mandating Paid Sick Leave – The Utilitarian Argument

A recent Shawn Vestal column on a proposed ‪Spokane ordinance mandating paid sick leave (http://bit.ly/1FiYPkI) lacks depth. Frankly, rather than arguing that mandated sick leave hurts the economy, the issue is the very basic question of whether this is an area where government should act. The column focuses on utilitarianism.

The utilitarian argument has flaws on both sides, and Shawn’s column points out the flaws in the utilitarian objection to such an ordinance. He cites a UW survey of Seattle businesses before & after a Seattle sick leave ordinance, but with so many questions unanswered.

• “Implementation was easy for some employers and caused temporary hassles for others.”
[Questions: Did employees notice any changes in how current sick leave policies were administered? For example, did businesses start requiring a doctor’s note when they used to just accept an employee calling in? Did employees who had been happily using a single Paid Time Off (PTO) system lose that flexibility? Did employers change how sick leave was accumulated and whether it could roll over from year to year?]

• “Costs to employers and impact on businesses have been modest and smaller than anticipated. … There is no evidence that the Ordinance caused employers to go out of business or leave Seattle.”
[Questions: Has there been a benefit to employees? How many employees who did not have sick leave prior to the ordinance benefited after the ordinance? Is it major and large, or modest and smaller than anticipated?]

• “Overall 70 percent of employers support the Ordinance.”
[Questions: What percentage of employers already provided sick leave? If it was 70%, did they see this as a levelling the playing field move, or just didn’t care because it didn’t affect them? If it was greater than 70%, why was support lower?]

• Sixty percent of businesses said they could not quantify the impact the ordinance has had on their operations, and 24 percent didn’t even know if they were tracking the costs. So few businesses had this data that the reliability of estimates provided by those who did is limited. Still, for the 26 businesses surveyed on that question, costs ranged from zero to $125,000, with an average of 0.125 percent of annual revenue.
[Questions: Probably even less useful to ask employees how they benefited, they are just as unlikely to be tracking this kind of minutiae. But perhaps a survey of 100 employees would be useful, and we could determine that the value to their lives ranged from zero to $600 (5 full time days at $15/hour). Might be as much as 1% of their annual income, assuming they were sick for 5 days and needed/used the whole benefit.]

• The number of people employed in Seattle, which was rising in 2012, continued to rise after the ordinance was implemented. Total wages paid in the city, which were rising before the ordinance took effect, continued rising after, though the growth slowed. The study’s authors said it’s possible some employers had held down wages to offset the cost of the ordinance, though they said the evidence for this was “not strong statistically.”
[Questions: Not surprising that it’s “not strong statistically” because until the ordinance came along there wasn’t great reason to track a relationship between sick leave and wages in that manner. Decisions about benefits to offer were driven by competiveness in attracting employees. If necessary to attract workers, employers offered sick leave.]

• Overall, economic data for the city suggest the ordinance had “no or very moderate impact.”
[Questions: Overall, do we know if economic, job satisfaction or happiness for employees had any noticeable impact? Or was it all just an exercise in grandstanding by people who think all business owners are greedy, immoral vultures who need to be told how to run their businesses?]

I’ll close with the conclusion from the writer for the Bloomberg News Service cited by Shawn: “He found the laws had an effect, but not a large one.”

Without the whole picture, it’s just more progressive liberal theater.

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