color photograph of a Latinx man with buzzed hair wearing a black t-shirt and blue jeans setting down plates at a round wooden table at a restaurant.
BELVIDERE, IL - MARCH 11: Victor Hernandez Jr. delivers lunch orders to Jim Vitek, left, and his wife Chell on Saturday at Taqueria El Molcajete on March 11, 2023, in Belvidere, Illinois. (Photo by Kayla Wolf for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Many jobs include a certain amount of paid sick, vacation, or personal leave for workers. A worker who becomes ill, needs to care for a sick family member, or wants to take a day off can use this leave without any interruption in pay. But many workers don’t have any paid leave—so if they take leave, they lose income. 

In Illinois, about 1.5 million workers lack paid leave. But the Illinois Paid Leave for All Workers Act, signed into law on March 13, mandates paid time off that workers can use for any reason, not just for sickness. Under the law, workers accrue one hour of paid leave for every 40 hours worked up to 40 hours of leave during a 12-month period. 

The Paid Leave for All Workers Act extends paid leave to many workers who have lacked it, including domestic workers. It also applies to non-unionized, low-wage workers such as temp workers and warehouse workers, said Wendy Pollack, founder and director of the Women’s Law and Policy Initiative at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, which advocated for the Illinois law. When tipped workers take leave, they will be paid at least their respective locale’s full minimum wage rather than the tipped minimum wage.

The Illinois law leaves out certain workers, though. It doesn’t apply to independent contractors, who generally get paid only for the work that they do. Nor does it apply to employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement in the construction industry or parcel, documents, or freight delivery industries. 

Ensuring workers can take leave if they become sick or need to care for a sick family member is a significant part of the push for this law. “No one should have to choose a paycheck over their health and the health of their family,” said Audra Wilson, president and CEO of the Shriver Center on Poverty Law.

“Nationwide, almost 1 in 4 private-sector workers has no paid sick time at all. That’s disproportionately low-income workers, disproportionately part-time workers,” said Molly Weston Williamson, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress. For these workers in Illinois, “this may be the first time they’ve ever had access to any kind of paid time off.”

“That’s going to be a game changer for a lot of workers,” Williamson said. 

Agata Serek cleans houses in a Chicago suburb. When one of her sons was born, she explained, “He was premature, and lots of times, he was very sick. And I asked about the days off. So finally I got some but without pay. And finally, I lost the job because I was asking too much for the days off.” 

Beyond sick leave, providing paid leave for any reason is important for workers’ well-being, advocates say. The legislation states that “it is in the public policy interests of the State for all working Illinoisans to have some paid leave from work to maintain their health and well-being, care for their families, or use for any other reason of their choosing.”

By including any other reason workers choose, the Illinois law is less restrictive than most paid leave laws. 

“It’s a dignity and a choice issue,” Wilson said. While many people can take paid time off however they see fit, “for low-wage workers who are already fighting to have access to that time, then to basically not have the dignity to even be able to use the time that they have earned in the way that they see fit—it’s unconscionable.” 

Because the leave can be taken for any reason and without providing documentation, the law allows workers to deal with foreseen and unforeseen events, from a home repair emergency to a mental health day to a school event. 

For example, if a worker knows their child’s recital is coming up in a month, they may think: “Can I be there? Because the recital is during my work hours,” Pollack said, adding that being able to attend such functions that are important to people enhances their lives. 

Serek has six children; over the 30 years she has been cleaning houses, five of them have graduated from school. She has asked for days off to attend their graduation ceremonies—which sometimes involved driving out of state. “But no one pays me for the days which I take off,” she said.

Workers should be able to take some vacation days, Serek said. “Domestic workers are very hard-working people, and they need a couple days sometimes to reset, time to get rest. We do physical jobs,” she said. “Usually, people like me don’t see money on [their] paycheck for days which they take off.”

A microcosm of these issues

Illinois joins only two other states that mandate paid leave for workers to use for any reason. Maine and Nevada have laws that allow workers to use their leave for any reason, but Maine excludes businesses with 10 or fewer employees, and Nevada excludes businesses with fewer than 50 employees. The Illinois law applies regardless of business size, bringing more workers under its protection than the other two states do. 

Another reason the Illinois law is important is that it may help ease the burden for workers who disproportionately lack paid time off—particularly women and people of color. 

“We know that all workers deserve paid leave,” Wilson said. “But the lack of paid leave aggravates existing racial disparities in employment and access to health care.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted some of these disparities. “Looking at the demographics of our essential workers in Chicago, you have many people, for example, who are domestic workers, who are over-represented in Black and brown and Asian [communities], and they became even more essential during the pandemic,” Wilson said, but they often lack access to quality health care. 

Chicago serves as a microcosm of these issues, but they extend beyond Chicago, Wilson said. “We know that paid leave is a racial justice issue—that is a national one.”

Women are less likely than men to have paid sick leave, but laws mandating paid sick leave have narrowed this gender gap, according to a 2022 study published in “Health Affairs.” The study noted: “In the US service sector, which employs one in five workers, half of all workers and a disproportionate share of women workers lack access to paid time off from work when sick.”

Pollack noted that, as many people left low-wage jobs, such as restaurant service positions, during the pandemic, challenges have remained for both employers and workers. But, she said, “you’re not going to get workers back in the fold unless you do give them a little breathing room, and that’s what this law is trying to do: give them a little breathing room in terms of some control over their own lives.” 

Williamson agreed. “Just having the peace of mind of knowing that if something does happen, whether they’re sick, whether there’s a child care emergency, whether there’s some kind of family situation—that if and when they need the time, that’s going to be there for them, and they’re not going to lose their paycheck or their job because of it,” she said.

“Thirty years ago, it was really not in the vocabulary [that] people would get paid for days off, so I’m very excited,” Serek said. The five days of paid time off “will be something very nice, like a thank you for the people who work very, very hard, [including] cleaning ladies and other domestic workers—and not only [them], because this will be for everyone. So I’m happy this will be for everyone in our state.”

Small businesses have expressed concern that they can’t afford to provide this paid leave, and that doing so will hurt their business. For example, the National Federation of Independent Business opposed the Illinois law. NFIB Illinois State Director Chris Davis said in a news release that for small businesses, the paid leave mandate law is an “employment tax that too many of them simply can’t afford.” 

But advocates for paid leave say that supporting workers with paid leave will benefit businesses. “It will cost an employer more, in the long run, to not allow their workers to be able to avail themselves of time off,” Wilson said. 

Williamson explained, “When businesses don’t provide paid sick time, they suffer in terms of recruiting and retention, they suffer in terms of presenteeism—so folks who are showing up to work sick when they should be staying home. They’re less productive because they’re sick, and also, they get everybody else sick, which drives down productivity.”

The food service industry serves as one example of the larger effects of people going to work sick because they lack paid leave. “Only about half of all food service workers have any kind of paid sick time,” Williamson said. “When folks don’t have the protected paid time off they need, they’re much more likely to go to work sick, they’re much more likely to send a sick child to school or day care, and that’s a public health issue for all of us.” 

Williamson said she does not anticipate much difficulty with employers implementing the Illinois law. “Businesses are going to adapt pretty easily and seamlessly,” she said. “That’s a trend that I think we’ve seen over and over—that before various kinds of paid leave laws are passed, there’s a concern about negative impacts on businesses, particularly on small businesses. But once we see the laws go into place, we really don’t see those concerns pan out.”

As employers implement these new policies, the Shriver Center will work with worker centers and other organizations to make sure workers know their rights, Pollack says. 

“I’m excited as well, and we are all waiting for this law to come,” said Ania Jakubek, a domestic worker organizer with Arise Chicago. “I have only one concern: that people are going to be afraid to ask for it.” That’s what happened with a City of Chicago law that mandates paid time off—people didn’t ask for the time off because they were afraid of retaliation and losing their job, she explained. 

The Illinois law does prohibit retaliation, so employers cannot take adverse action against an employee for using this leave and cannot consider use of this leave as a negative factor in any employment action. 

Just the beginning

These protections are important, Williamson said. “For a lot of workers, they’re not thinking about: Can I afford to give up the paycheck? They’re thinking about, ‘If I take this day or two that I need, am I going to lose my job?’” she said. “What this law does is it really gives this double protection of both the essential right to pay but also the essential protection against retaliation or other kinds of negative consequences.”

The Illinois law goes into effect at the beginning of 2024. It specifies that employees can use their paid leave after 90 days of employment, which means workers in jobs with high turnover rates may be less likely to qualify to use this paid leave. Additionally, independent contractors still will need to juggle working and taking time off without pay. But it’s an important start to providing more protections for workers, advocates say.  

“This is a huge victory” that was years in the making, Wilson said. “But it is just the beginning. We’d love more than just five days.” She emphasized that the 40 hours (or five days) of leave is a floor, not a ceiling, and employers can provide more paid leave.

Fourteen states, Washington, D.C., and some other municipalities mandate paid sick leave. And advocates have been pushing for a paid sick leave law at the national level. The Healthy Families Act has been introduced in Congress repeatedly, most recently in May 2023, but it has not progressed. 

“We need a federal paid leave program because, while paid leave is one of the most impactful and widely supported policies in the country, there are states where it will not pass, states whose workers need it most,” said Dawn Huckelbridge, founding director of Paid Leave for All, a national campaign for paid family and medical leave. “States without paid leave programs have some of the worst health outcomes for children and families as a whole.”

“This is an issue of gender, racial, and economic justice,” Huckelbridge said.

Efforts are currently underway to mandate paid leave in various states, such as Minnesota. “Nationwide in general, there’s been a huge push, and in a number of states, for various kinds of paid leave or paid time off,” Williamson said. “There’s a lot of momentum.” 

Williamson added, “When policymakers like those in Illinois step up to guarantee that everybody has this baseline protection, that’s really an investment in not only workers’ health, but really in all of our health and the health of our communities.”

But the federal Healthy Families Act and proposed state policies focus on sick leave, not leave to be used for any reason. So the breadth of the Illinois law sets it apart. 

Paid sick time provides a safety net. “But we also know that workers have a lot of needs that don’t necessarily fit into that box,” Williamson said. “There may be emergency child care situations, or your car breaks down, or even just—you need the time.” 

Being able to take paid time off, “to use the time in those additional situations, is really sort of expanding the universe of what workers can rely on and know is available to them,” Williamson said.

Allison Torres Burtka is a freelance writer and editor in the Detroit area.