"When my abuser began stalking me, it became clear that keeping a job would be challenging," Kathy, an office worker in Warwick, RI, told Family Values @ Work, an organization that advocates for paid leave. "My abuser would sometimes wait outside my house for me at the time I needed to leave for work, physically prevent me from leaving my house, or damage my car. I was consistently late and sometimes missed full days. I lost two jobs directly because of his interference."
Rhode Island's paid sick and safe leave law protects survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault so they don't have to worry about losing their jobs while going to court or seeing a doctor. Advocates argue that H.R. 4219 — the Workflex in the 21st Century Act currently on the table — would put these protections at risk. The bill would expand paid sick leave and workplace flexibility options for employees, but it would also give companies the power to override state and local laws, which the bill's critics say would hurt workers more than help them.
On Tuesday, the U.S. House Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions held a hearing on this bill, which was proposed back in November by three Republican lawmakers: California Rep. Mimi Walters, New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, and Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.
"H.R. 4219 would give employers the voluntary option to establish a paid leave and flexible work benefit plan under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ('ERISA'). The bill terms these benefit plans as 'qualified flexible workplace arrangement plans.' Employers that elect to offer such plans must meet a variety of minimum federal standards, and are subject to the overall regulatory and enforcement framework of ERISA," Jon Breyfogle, a principal at the Groom Law Group, testified during the hearing.
"In order to qualify as a workplace plan, employers must offer both a compensable leave benefit and a Workflex benefit (Workflex options include programs like biweekly work, compressed work schedules, telework, job sharing, flexible scheduling, and predictable scheduling)," he continued.
Advocates of the bill argue that it will be simpler for businesses than dealing with state and local requirements, as well as help their bottom line. Under the bill, an employer wouldn't have to comply with state or local policies if they offer their employees qualifying benefits.
Currently 10 states, including Washington, D.C., and 33 localities have various paid sick leave laws on the books.
But Democrats say "Workflex" is a misnomer and would actually undercut the options available to employees — and give their bosses the upper hand.
"The Democratic opposition to this is strong," Rhode Island State Sen. Gayle Goldin, who testified at the hearing on behalf of Family Values @ Work, told Refinery29. "My worry is that it would take away what's already law and doesn't provide any additional benefits. Employees can already provide paid leave and flexible work options if they want to. It will harm my constituents, and I don't want to see us rolling back those benefits."
It shifts us back to a time before we passed all of these paid leave bills — when you were at the whim of your boss.
Gayle Goldin, Rhode Island State Senator
She added: "It shifts us back to a time before we passed all of these paid leave bills — when you were at the whim of your boss."
The National Partnership for Women & Families — which publishes data on paid sick day laws by state, city, and county — called it "an unfair, undemocratic, underhanded attempt to thwart the will of the voters and the state and local lawmakers who have passed paid sick days laws."
"This hearing comes just days after the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released new data showing that a record number of people in this country — 71% of private sector workers — now have access to paid sick days. But the new data also show shocking, shameful disparities in access to paid sick days; 92% of the highest-wage workers now have access to paid sick days, compared to just 31% of the lowest-wage workers. The badly misnamed Workflex bill would almost certainly exacerbate these disparities and arrest overall progress," NPWF president Debra Ness said in a statement.
Instead, Ness urged members of Congress to support the Healthy Families Act, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Rep. Patty Murray of Washington. The policy would let workers in businesses with 15 or more employees earn up to seven job-protected sick days a year to use for their own illnesses, caregiving for a family member, or attending school meetings related to their child's health condition. (Workflex only guarantees paid sick days for yourself.)
Healthy Families would also let survivors of domestic violence or sexual assault, like Kathy, use their time off to recover or seek out resources to receive help.