Maine's new sick leave policy for workers sets a precedent other states may follow

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Another state is stepping up to give its hardworking employees the treatment and flexibility they deserve.

Under new legislation signed into law May 28 by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, workers in Maine will now be able to accrue paid time off — and use it for whatever they wish. Maine is the 11th state to guarantee full-time workers paid sick leave, but the first to allow the time to be used for something other than personal illness.

Maine's law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, 2021, requires companies with 10 or more employees to provide an hour of paid sick time for every 40 hours worked, maxing out at 40 hours of time off each year.

This new law is a victory not only for Maine's workforce but its companies as well: The Pine Tree State's workforce is among the least productive in the nation, generating just over $88,000 in economic output per job last year, according to CNBC's 2019 America's States for Business study, released this month. Studies consistently have shown that taking time off improves productivity, lowers stress and results in better mental health.

As legislative bodies and companies recognize that workers need flexible paid leave policies, it's worth taking a closer look at what's spurring these new paid-time-off requirements — and the upsides for employees and businesses.

Tracking the trend

Discussions of health and labor laws have bumped sick leave into the national conversation. Paired with a slew of local regulations, states that mandate paid sick leave have added another layer of labor protection beyond the Family and Medical Leave Act, which doesn't require paid leave. These new PTO laws ensure that employees can take time to recover when their immune system falters or when a loved one needs care.

And as unemployment continues to go down, time-off policies have emerged as a way for employers to differentiate themselves. While salary and job responsibilities are only two pieces of the recruiting puzzle, potential candidates are now comparing flexibility, benefits and workplace culture. Generous PTO and sick leave policies can make the difference between landing top talent or losing them to a competitor.

"Forward-thinking businesses and states like Maine are turning the tide, helping workers avoid the choice between health and a paycheck."

In the private sector, some businesses are taking it upon themselves to implement better paid sick leave across their organization. Companies like Target are recognizing the value of their employees by revamping sick and parental leave policies for workers at every level.

Increasing productivity through rest

Despite our best efforts, everyone gets sick occasionally. And nowadays our ability to treat an illness often takes a backseat to work. While paid sick leave is a positive benefit that businesses should offer to their employees, the financial costs and potential productivity loss can be intimidating for companies of all sizes. But without paid time off, employers may actually throw a bigger wrench in workplace productivity.

Nursing colds and other ailments not only depletes a person's energy but also demands a lot of rest and recuperation that employees can't focus on if they're trying to work at the same time. When they're on the job, people should be mentally engaged, not coughing over a keyboard with a tissue stockpile on standby. Feeling empowered to take true sick time — whether for illness or mental health — scrubs away distractions and lets workers thrive while on the clock. Health-related PTO allows employees to return to work focused, contributing more than if they'd turned in halfhearted work while under the weather.

Saving the workplace environment

Despite its advantages, paid sick time won't help if no one feels comfortable actually using it. With the rise of flexible work schedules and work-from-home options, more and more employees are choosing — whether outright or not — to work while sick. In fact, a recent study found that 1 in 4 Americans say their boss expects them to work while sick.

This is a habit we need to break. Working while sick shouldn't be glorified, and this type of culture change starts from the top. Company leaders and managers can undo this damage by embracing the sick day and encouraging employees to use it when needed. By embracing time off, organizations create an open, welcoming and thriving culture that shows employees you see them as more than a means to an end and you value their health and recovery time.

How can businesses prioritize health and well-being? Start by asking your employees what they want. By giving your people the opportunity to weigh in on what their employee experience looks like, companies will inevitably build high-performance cultures and an engaged workforce.

A necessity, not a perk

Now is the time for organizations to rethink how they view paid sick time. It's no longer a luxury benefit but a necessity for effective business operations. Forward-thinking businesses and states like Maine are turning the tide, helping workers avoid the choice between health and a paycheck.

Why offer paid sick leave? With results that include improved employee morale, retention and productivity, the better question is: Why not?

— By Paul Pellman, CEO of people-management solution Kazoo