CHICAGO – When Joan Van is sick, she doesn't get paid.
The East St. Louis-area restaurant server and single mother of three said she works doubles to make up the money when she or one of her children gets sick.
“You can't let your kids see you break down because you're tired and exhausted, 'cause you gotta keep pushing. You got to. And if you don't, then who's gonna do it?” she said.
She may not have to for much longer. Expansive paid leave legislation requiring Illinois employers to give workers time off based on hours worked, to be used for any reason, is ready for action by Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who said he will sign it.
Requiring paid vacation is rare in the U.S. — just Maine and Nevada have similar laws — although common in other industrialized nations.
Fourteen states and Washington, D.C., require employers offer paid sick leave via similar laws, although employees may only use it for health-related issues. What sets Illinois' new legislation apart is workers won’t have to explain the reason for their absence as long as they provide notice in accordance with reasonable employer standards.
Maine and Nevada also allow workers to decide how to use their time, but substantial exemptions apply. Maine’s Earned Paid Leave law only applies to employers with more than 10 employees, and Nevada’s exempts businesses with less than 50. Illinois’ will reach nearly all employees and has no limit based on the business size.
Seasonal workers such as lifeguards will be exempt, as will federal employees or college students who work non-full-time, temporary jobs for their university.
The legislation would take effect on Jan. 1, 2024. Employees will accrue one hour of paid leave for every 40 hours worked up to 40 hours total, although the employer may offer more. Employees can start using the time once they have worked for 90 days.
“Working families face enough challenges without the concern of losing a day’s pay when life gets in the way,” Pritzker said on Jan. 11, when the bill passed both chambers.
Ordinances in Cook County and Chicago already require employers to offer paid sick leave, and workers in those locations will continue to be covered by the existing laws rather than the new bill.
Johnae Strong, an administrative worker at a small media company in Chicago, said paid sick time helps her take care of her two children, a 10-year-old and a 6-year-old. But expanding the time to be used for any reason would be helpful.
“Life happens,” she said, adding that she hopes Chicago will update its law to be more flexible, like the state bill.
The Chicago and Cook County ordinances served as pilot programs for the statewide legislation, and assuaged critics who predicted mass business closures that didn’t come to fruition, said Sarah Labadie, director of advocacy and policy at Women Employed, a nonprofit that has fought for paid leave since 2008 and helped push through the legislation.
“Obviously we had some strange things happen during the pandemic, but pre-pandemic that was not the case. Chicago was a thriving economic engine," she said.
Peoria Democratic Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth sponsored the bill, which she said will "help to uplift working families” and “immediately help people.”
Newly-elected House Republican Leader Tony McCombie said the mandated benefits could have a “detrimental effect” on small businesses and nonprofits “in an already unfriendly business climate.”
"We all want a great working environment with an equitable work/life balance," she said in an emailed statement. “However, Senate Bill 208 failed to address the concerns of those providing that work environment.”
For Leslie Allison-Seei, who runs a promotion and sweepstakes management company with her husband in DuPage county, taking care of their three full-time employees is a priority, but it is "difficult" to compete with corporate paid time off policies.
“We’re thrilled that this is getting passed and that it’s going to be signed. But it’s also a little bit frightening because, you know, a week’s worth of time — I don’t know what that would do to our business," Allison-Seei said. “I think a lot of businesses are just doing the very best that they can to stay afloat.”
Small business advocacy organization National Federation of Independent Business opposes the bill, saying that it “imposes a one-size fits all mandate on all employers.”
Small business owners face steep inflation, increased fuel and energy costs and an absence of qualified workers, and the requirement will be an "additional burden," NFIB state director Chris Davis said in a statement following the bill’s passage. “The message from Illinois lawmakers is loud and clear, ‘Your small business isn’t essential.’"
However, the potential burden on small businesses clashes with the needs of their workers, particularly those with children.
Van, a parent leader with Community Organizing and Family Issues said she has no paid leave until she has worked for one year. Knowing she will miss a day of pay when she or one of her kids gets sick is a constant stress for the Belleville mom, but guaranteed PTO “would be awesome,” offering her peace of mind and alleviating some financial worries.
Molly Weston Williamson, paid leave policy expert and senior fellow at think tank Center for American Progress, called the Illinois legislation “a huge step in the right direction."
In addition to establishing workers’ right to paid time off, the bill forbids employers from retaliating against employees for using it. This is key to making sure “low-income workers or other folks who are more vulnerable are really, practically able to take the time,” Williamson said.
Paid leave is both a labor rights issue and a public health issue, Williamson said. Service workers like Van who handle food and beverage without paid time off are more likely to go to work sick and to send their children to day care sick, “at which point they get everyone else sick,” she said.
“Especially now that we are three-plus years into a global pandemic, I think all of us have a much more visceral understanding of the ways that all of our health is tied together," Williamson said. ____
Savage is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.