By Judy Patrick

In response to the swine flu epidemic, President Obama and the Centers for Disease Control are offering Americans some common-sense advice: wash your hands frequently, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and stay home from work if you feel sick.

Unfortunately, nearly half of all private-sector workers -- 57 million people -- may be forced to ignore that last piece of advice, because they aren’t allowed paid sick days and they risk losing income or even getting fired if they call in sick. For low-wage workers, that number is even higher: three out of four do not have the right to a paid sick day.

To our national shame, the U.S. stands alone among the top developed economies in the world in not providing workers with the right to stay home if they or a child is ill. It’s no different here in California, where, as in the rest of the country, half of all workers are denied even one single paid sick day.

Many of those workers are the same people who serve and prepare our food in restaurants, cafeterias and fast-food outlets. All told, about 90 percent of workers in the food service industry do not have paid sick days. So when one of them feels a cold (or worse) coming on, chances are they must come to work anyway, because the alternative is losing their job or all important wages. And chances are that the customer will end up with that cold (or worse).

Some people who have already figured this out are staying away from restaurants and burger joints and skipping their morning latte stop. That may be good for their health, but it’s terrible for our economy. And it hardly solves the problem. What about the millions of other low-wage workers who must interact with the public on a daily basis when they get sick as cashiers, child-care providers, bus drivers, hotel receptionists, bank tellers, parking lot attendants, security guards, and sales assistants because they have no paid sick days?

Fortunately, there is a solution on the horizon that doesn’t require you to wear a surgical mask for the rest of your life, and doesn’t require civic-minded workers to forfeit their jobs, their hard earned wages, and their health. Congress is considering a proposal that would grant most workers up to seven paid sick days a year to care for themselves or sick family members. States and localities are also passing their own versions of the proposal including San Francisco, Milwaukee and the District of Columbia.

A report issued by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) on the Healthy Families, Healthy Workplaces Act of 2008 (last year’s proposal) found that California employers would have saved almost $2.3 million due to reduced turnover costs. In addition, California workers and their families would experience lower health care related expenditures, saving $7 million annually.

Paid sick days are not just a workers’ rights issue – it’s a public health issue. Clearly it’s in everybody’s interest to ensure that workers get paid sick days.

There’s an economic silver lining here, too: a workforce exposed to fewer contagious illnesses would have less absenteeism and be more productive. And with lower turnover comes lower training costs for employers.

With all of the talk these days about how to jumpstart the economy, perhaps companies that already provide paid sick days to their employees should consider advertising that fact. Wouldn’t you prefer to dine at a restaurant or shop in a store that sported a good health seal of approval? California employers might just find that offering this basic benefit makes for a healthy workplace – and healthy profits.
Patrick is president and CEO of the Women’s Foundation of California. She previously served as vice president of programs at the Foundation, developing programs to strengthen grant partners’ organizational capacity and leading the Foundation’s advocacy and policy change work, including the development of the groundbreaking Women’s Policy Institute.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 6/09


Rob said...

Once again, a benefit becomes a right.

You say everyone should have the right to stay home when they're sick. They do, but why should an employer be forced to pay them to? I agree it's a good benefit and in a restaurant's best interest to do so, but as always, the small business owner takes it in the shorts if companies are forced to do so.

Your average small business struggling to get off the ground doesn't have a great deal of bench depth; it's in their best interest to hire chronically healthy people. Nothing gets done when people are out sick. To discourage this, some don't offer paid sick days and some only half pay for sick days.

Those of us who have had paid sick leave... how many have called in when they weren't really sick; mental health days, we called them.

Here's an idea, let's have the government keep their nose out of business. Let those who want to offer it, offer it, and those who don't, don't.

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

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