Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Getting Paid Sick Time Helps Everyone

By Rosemary Harris Lytle

For most Americans, the Fourth of July is a day for fireworks, concerts, parades and all manner of patriotic displays. It's as American as barbeque ribs and apple pie, reminding us of freedom, justice, community, hard work and family values; the shared ideals that define us as a nation.

While many enjoyed a paid day off for the holiday, not everyone was so fortunate. Paid days off from work are rare. When it's a holiday, at least the time off is taken for fun, but when employees need time off for illness or caregiving, even fewer can afford it.

We all occasionally need time off from work to share the responsibility for our family's health. But nearly 60 million American workers lack a single paid sick day in which to care for themselves when occasional illness strikes. Nearly 100 million lack a paid sick day to care for an ill child.

Those who must go to work sick, not only jeopardize their own well being, they threaten the public health. In early June, the World Health Organization announced that the world is officially in the grip of a global H1N1 swine flu pandemic, the first such flu pandemic in 40 years. In light of the U.S. outbreak, President Barack Obama and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had previously stated that those experiencing flu symptoms should stay home from school and work, see a doctor and avoid public contact until they recover. But American workers without paid sick days cannot stay home because they risk losing their jobs. This is no inconsequential threat when you consider the impact on the public health.

And neither is it inconsequential when you consider the impact of the lack of paid sick days on working families generally -- especially in these trying economic times.

Consider Asha C., a young mother in Milwaukee, Wis.

As a temporary hire at the company where she worked, Asha had no paid sick days and could be fired for missing work -- even if she or her children were ill. One day, she was sick and called-in to say that she would be late that day. Asha came to work one hour late. Two men escorted her to a large meeting room. They informed her that she was fired. The employer's actions not only caused her to lose her job but to miss payment of her rent and other household bills. It took a while for Asha to find another job. The second, like the first, included no paid sick days.

This kind of workplace policy seems unfathomable; outdated. It's why a recently introduced proposal in Congress is designed to allow Americans to earn paid sick time so that they can take care of their own and their family's health needs. Care-giving responsibilities can be one of the biggest hurdles working families face in their quest to realize the American dream of economic self-sufficiency. But for these Americans, the lack of this basic labor standard presents unconscionable choices: whether to stay home and get better or go to work to keep from losing a job.

Its stories like Asha's that adds urgency to the need for paid sick time.

This is about working families. This is also about staying competitive as a nation in the global economy. Nineteen of the 20 most competitive countries in the world guarantee paid sick days -- and the United States is the odd one out. As Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who recently introduced the proposal in Congress noted, "What does it say when Lesotho and Papua New Guinea are implementing paid sick days to give their businesses and their entire nation a competitive edge, yet America still does not get it?"

It's great to celebrate our country’s history and values. But for the celebrating to be truly authentic, every American worker must have paid sick days.
Harris Lytle is public relations coordinator of 9to5, National Association of Working Women
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 6/09


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