New Cook County paid sick leave laws could mean legal trouble for employers if ignored

By Kacie Whaley | Aug 1, 2017

CHICAGO — The new paid sick leave ordinances that have taken effect in Chicago and Cook County are not only likely to interfere with many employers' worker requirements, but could spell big trouble for employers who ignore them.

As of July 1, the city of Chicago and Cook County began enforcing ordinances that require employers to give workers 40 hours of paid sick leave (PSL) per year, and additional PSL for those covered under the U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act. These laws apply to employees in Chicago, as well as to employees in Cook County who work in communities that have not exercised their powers under the Illinois constitution to "opt out" of the county's new rules.

Employers, however, should adapt to the new rules, or run the risk of penalties and litigation, said Marcia McCormick, associate dean and professor at the Saint Louis University School of Law, who specializes in employment law.

"Employers who run afoul of these rules can face lawsuits before the county agency or in court, which will result in damages of three times the amount of wages lost as a result of the violations, plus interest, along with the costs and attorneys fees associated with bringing the lawsuit," she said.

In an entrypublished on, author Christy Phanthavong, an attorney at Bryan Cave, said many employers are assuming that these ordinances will not affect their existing paid sick leave guidelines. But Phanthavong found that the new laws are so complex that employers who choose not to change their paid time off (PTO) policies to reflect the new laws will be doing so "at their own peril."

She noted the ordinances have broader coverage than many other PTO policies. For instance, they cover temporary employees, seasonal employees and workers who generally work less than 20 hours per week. The ordinances have changed the benefit year to July 1 to June 30 for workers employed as of July 1, 2017, or the 12-month period following an employee's date of hire for others. 

Also - unlike almost all PTO policies - the new ordinances restrict employers from denying PTO requests that are made in compliance with the paid leave laws.

McCormick said she believed the new ordinances could benefit employees.

"As the county commissioners wrote in the preamble to the ordinance, about 40 percent of employees (or about 840,000 employees) in Cook County lacked paid sick leave," McCormick said. "That means these employees had to choose between working while ill or injured or taking time to recover or see a doctor. Many sick leave policies do not make clear that the leave can be taken to care for the relatives listed in the ordinance, and many do not allow leave to be taken to seek treatment or legal help as a result of domestic violence."

McCormick said the benefits that could come with the new paid leave laws could save workers from getting a reduction in their paycheck or being threatened with termination for not attending work.

She added that if employees carefully modify their policies to comply with the ordinances, they can avoid costly backlash. 

"Employers can use the language in the ordinance to develop their policies, and it is fairly straightforward," McCormick said. "If their policies are already as generous or more generous than the new ordinance, they do not have to do anything. Employers should review their policies to ensure that employees can earn at least one hour of time for every forty hours worked and that they are allowed to take that time as paid time off for all of the reasons specified in the ordinance."

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