Proposed law could raise labor costs for long-term care operators

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John O'Connor
John O'Connor

Many a provider broke out in cold sweats when the Family and Medical Leave Act was cobbled together two decades ago.

But the landmark labor law proved much less disruptive than most operators originally feared. That's because the measure struck a reasonable balance: While it protected workers who needed some time off, it also safeguarded employers against having to pay twice for the same job by making the leave unpaid.

The FMLA requires employers to give eligible workers up to 12 weeks off for reasons that include the birth of a child, care for a family member, a health condition that makes an employee unable to perform the essential function of a job, the adoption-foster care placement of a child, or the sudden military obligation of a close family member.

By most accounts, the FMLA has worked fairly well so far. Unless you ask Sen. Tom Harkin. The Iowa Democrat has introduced a revision that could raise labor costs for many operators.

Under his Healthy Families Act, workers would be allowed to earn up to 56 hours, or seven days, of paid sick time. That's right, mandated paid time off.

Workers would earn one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked. Employers that already provide paid sick time would not have to change their current policies, as long as their existing time could be used for the same purposes. Employees would be covered when they are sick, receive preventive care or need to address domestic violence.

Fields such as long-term care would stand to be especially hard hit by the measure's new fiscal requirements. Any way you slice it, this would amount to a new tax.

Look, I get that workers become ill, and that other unfortunate things happen in life. And I believe that becoming sick or having a family member who needs care should not be a deal-breaker when it comes to holding one's job. But there are a few realities in the senator's proposal that are being conveniently overlooked.

One is that many facilities are already operating on razor thin margins. They can ill afford to pay a person who is not working and a replacement worker as well.

Moreover, this new law could have the unintended effect of encouraging more employees to take sick days. You think you have staffing problems when a flu bug rips through your facility now? Just wait.

Many workers also would be incentivized to skip work for preventive maintenance. Preventive care is important and should certainly be encouraged. But why can't it be done during off hours? Should employees also get paid time off for other important but flexible matters, such as buying groceries, paying bills or playing in a park league? 

Our nation is going broke. Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are in dire straits. The economy has been in the tank for years. We may be looking at new wars. And that's just for starters. There is no shortage of real problems for our elected leaders to contemplate.

Yet Sen. Harkin wants Congress to revamp a law that's working? Maybe he needs some time off.

Oh, wait. He's actually engineering that himself since he announced two weeks ago that he would not be running for re-election.


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.