New sick leave ordinance will take effect next year in Cook County; employers face litigation risk

By Dawn Geske | Oct 25, 2016

CHICAGO – Cook County has approved an ordinance giving employees in the county the right to accrued sick leave and the ability to use it as necessary, as well as to sue employers who don't abide by the rules.

The ordinance, which goes into effect next year on on July 1, gives employees who work at least 80 hours in a 120-day period the ability to earn and use sick leave. With the start of the ordinance, employees will earn one hour of sick leave for every 40 hours worked.

Employees will also able to begin using the sick leave time they have accrued after 180 days of employment. They will be able to use up to 40 hours in a 12-month period for personal illness or injury, or to tend to the needs of a family member who is ill, injured or has medical needs. They can also use the sick leave for situations involving domestic violence against themselves or a family member.

The ordinance also allows employees to carry over 20 hours of sick leave time to be used in the next 12-month time period. Employers can require that an employee give seven days’ notice to use their sick leave time when possible, but must accommodate sick leave use for unforeseeable events. Any employee who uses three consecutive days of sick leave may have to provide proof that the absence falls under the guidelines for what is acceptable sick leave use.

The new ordinance is almost identical to the rules enacted in Chicago, which will begin on the same date, with the main difference being the geographical reach of the regulation.

“It’s strikingly similar,” said Steven J. Pearlman, a lawyer and partner at Proskauer Rose LLP in Chicago. “It’s nearly identical. If a Cook County employer followed the Chicago ordinance, they would be meeting their own burdens.”

The Cook County ordinance has an extensive reach, as it applies to nearly all employees in the county.

“It applies to all private businesses that have a place of business within Cook County that employs at least one employee that works within the county’s geographic limits for at least two hours in a two-week period,” said Pearlman. “It’s extremely broad in its reach.”

If an employer fails to comply with the Cook County ordinance, it will leave itself open to litigation, and the cost of violating the regulation is significant.

“There are some pretty stiff penalties that an employer could be subject to if they don’t follow the ordinance,” said Pearlman. “If someone sues in an Illinois court for a violation, an employee can recover three times the amount of any unpaid sick leave that was denied. They could get interest on that and they could get costs and reasonable attorney fees.”

With the possibility of litigation hanging in the balance for not providing sick leave benefits to an employee, Pearlman suggests that employers review their policies and make sure they are in compliance with the Cook County ordinance.

“If they do that, I think they are going to be in good shape,” Pearlman said.

As more and more cities and states take on a sick leave regulation for employers to follow, there is the possibility that this sort of ordinance could become statewide in Illinois and even nationwide.

“We see this type of ordinance enacted in cities and state all around the country including San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Oregon and Vermont,” said Pearlman. “It wouldn’t surprise me if it spreads.”

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