‘It just drives the cost up’: 40 hours per year of mandatory time off in Illinois is just too much to ask for some local entrepreneurs

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Doug Knight’s family has owned Springfield amusement park Knight’s Action Park since 1930, himself for 43 of those years.

The pandemic was a bear — Knight fought to keep his doors open, and when they closed for COVID-19, he pushed to reopen as soon as possible. Inflation, too, has been an obstacle. From inflatable inner tubes to chlorine for the pools, prices have risen for “everything we buy,” and now a new Illinois law represents “another bump on the road” for business owners, he says.

On Monday, Illinois became one of three U.S. states to mandate paid time off “for any reason,” up to 40 hours per year for full-time employees. Small business owners in Illinois say they know the importance of taking care of their workers, but some view the paid leave requirement as a government-imposed burden.

“When you hit the big bump and go off the cliff, what does that do for ya?” Knight said.

The legislation takes effect on Jan. 1, 2024. Employees will accrue one hour of paid leave for every 40 hours worked up to 40 hours total, and can start using the time once they’ve worked for 90 days.

Knight and his brother, a co-owner, mainly employ seasonal employees not covered by the measure, but they will have to provide paid leave for 10 year-round workers. The veteran business owner said he isn’t worried and will juggle whatever comes next, though consumers will ultimately pay the difference.

But proponents argue the policy supports both business owners and workers, and that guaranteeing paid leave will foster a healthier, more productive workforce.

“When folks have the kind of paid time off they need, they’re able to stay home when they’re sick,” said Molly Weston Williamson, who tracks paid leave policy at the research and advocacy group Center for American Progress.

For business owners concerned that the law will cause added strain amid difficult economic conditions, Williamson pointed out that Chicago and Cook County have had similar ordinances in place since 2017, and fears of devastating economic consequences never panned out.

In fact, “our economy can’t afford not to provide these benefits,” Williamson said. “We can’t afford to pay for folks who are losing their job. We can’t afford to pay for folks who are getting sicker because they’re not getting the care they need. We can’t afford the impacts on our health care system.”

Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, a Peoria Democrat who sponsored the legislation, said at Monday’s bill signing that the law in particular will help low-wage workers, who are those less likely to have paid time off and who are disproportionately Black, Latino, and women.

“Thanks to this measure, workers have the peace of mind that they can take care of themselves today without worrying about the consequences tomorrow,” Gordon-Booth said.

Christell Frausto, a co-owner of TequilaRia Wine and Spirits in Peoria, said she sees paid leave as “an investment” and hopes other business owners will too.

Frausto, 38, said she already accommodates employees needing flexibility for emergencies, illness or personal events. She opened the boutique-style store focused on specialty products including women-owned brands and organic, gluten-free or low-calorie options two years ago.

The pandemic was a clear sign that prioritizing workers is a necessary strategy for business owners, said Frausto, who hopes the lead-up to the law taking effect will give them time to budget and prepare.

“They’re part of my team,” she said of her employees. “My interest is to take care of them just as much as my customers. I have to make sure they have a balance in life and work.”

For Sandy and Dave Schoenborn, a couple who own the Lincoln Theatre in Belleville, Illinois, the state mandate is a major concern. “I’m pretty worried,” Sandy Schoeborn said. “Unless business gets better, it’s gonna be a strain.”

Paid leave is something employees should earn, not be entitled to, she said. “I can’t say no. If if I have a big event coming up and everybody decides to take off, I’m in a world of hurt.”

Knight, the Springfield amusement park owner, said he does his best to take care of his employees. “If they have a reason, they can take off a day” without pay, he said.

“Car broke down, mom’s sick, gotta take the dog to the vet… they’re all important to the staff. But you can’t close your business because everybody wants to take off cause there’s a concert,” he said.

The pandemic, inflation, utility prices — “it just all seems to be piling up,” and mandatory paid leave is now another hurdle for business owners.

“It just drives the cost up, drives the prices up, and the consumer pays the bill,” Knight said.

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Savage is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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