Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Deconstructing the Ohio Healthy Families Act

Last week a colleague asked me for my opinion on the proposed Ohio Healthy Families Act that is now pending in the state legislature. I figured I'd share it with the world. I think that the OHFA is largely a political agenda that, at the end of the day, will do nothing more than create yet another avenue for employees to sue their employers, while at the same time creating an administrative mess for Ohio businesses. Sick Days Ohio, the group lobbying for this bill, estimates that 2.2 million Ohio employees cannot earn paid sick days. I have no idea where they get their numbers from, but it seems like a gross exaggeration to me. According to the 2000 census, Ohio has approximately 6.7 million people of working age. I find it hard to believe that one-third of all Ohio workers do not have access to paid days off.

Essentially, the OHFA will grant all employees working for companies with 25 or more employees 7 paid days off per year for (1) their own physical or mental illness, injury or medical condition, (2) their own professional medical diagnosis or care, or preventive medical care, and (3) the same for an employee's child, parent, or spouse. Employees who work less than 30 hours per week or 1,560 total hours per year will receive a pro rated amount of paid time off. Sick leave will begin to accumulate immediately, but employees will not be able to use it until they have been employed for 90 days. The paid sick leave must accrue at least monthly, and except for the initial 90 days of employment, employees will be able to use it as it is accrued. Employers will not be able to prohibit employees from carrying over up to 7 days of unused paid time off per year.

Similar to the FMLA, but without the FMLA's level of specificity, the OHFA will also allow for the use of incremental (i.e., less than a full day) time off, certification by a health care professional when an employee is out for more than 3 consecutive work days, an anti-retaliation provision, and a private right of action for aggrieved employees. It also will forbid employers from counting the use of paid sick leave under a no-fault attendance policy. It is unclear if this prohibition applies only to paid leave under this statute, or any paid leave granted by an employer. Finally, it will require employers to keep records documenting hours worked and paid sick leave taken by employees for a period of 3 years.

Proposed O.R.C. 4114.07(B) is what I believe to be the saving grace for most employers, and why I think the OHFA will not result in monumental practical changes for the vast majority of companies that already provide paid time off. That section provides: "An employer with a leave policy providing paid leave options shall not be required to modify such policy, if such policy offers an employee the option at the employee’s discretion to take paid leave that is at least equivalent to the sick leave described in this section." As I read that section, and this is where my colleague and I differ, if a company has a leave policy that already provides for at least 7 paid sick days, it will not have to grant any additional paid leave.

The limited practical effect of this legislation notwithstanding, the cons of the OHFA far outweigh its pros. First and foremost, that last thing that businesses want is another statute under which employees will be able to sue, especially when it provides for treble damages and attorneys fees. Take a look at proposed O.R.C. 4114.10(C)(2): "No employer shall discharge or in any manner discriminate against any employee for opposing any practice made unlawful by this Act, including ... using paid sick leave taken pursuant to this Act as a negative factor in an employment action, such as hiring, promotion, or a disciplinary action." "Negative factor" is far too lenient of a standard, and will hamstring employers from taking action against any employee who is out for even a day with an illness.

There are other serious gaps in the statute. For example, the OHFA states that it covers all employers with 25 or more employees. If a company has 1,000 employees nationwide, but only maintains one Ohio facility with 15 employees, will the OHFA apply to that employer? What does "physical or mental illness, injury or medical condition" mean? What type of certification by a health care professional will support an extended leave? Can an employer dispute such a certification and obtain a second opinion?

The legislature, and if necessary, Ohio's voters, should take a long, hard look at these serious deficiencies in the OHFA, and should not merely knee-jerk vote in its favor because paid time off is viewed by most employees (and most of us are employees) as a "good thing." If this statute becomes law in its current form, it will take a herculean effort by the director of commerce to draft clear and comprehensive rules and regulations that make this law workable for businesses, instead of leaving myriad unanswered questions for the courts to sort out at the expense of those companies who will have to defend their individual interpretations.