Paid Sick Days: Healthier Workers, Healthier Families

With the H1N1 virus affecting communities across the nation, public health officials are highlighting the problem of Americans who lack paid sick days to take care of themselves or stay home with sick children sent home from school.  More than 59 million workers do not have any paid sick days and more than 86 million do not have paid sick days to care for other members of their family who are ill. 

As part of our multi-state shared agenda, the Progressive States Network is working with its partners and leading experts to promote paid sick days reforms in states across the country. These reforms will allow parents to take care of sick children and workers to be more productive, while protecting the overall public health and preventing transmission of diseases within the workplace.  Fully 86% of the public in polling by the Public Welfare Foundation in 2008 supported enacting laws that guarantee paid sick days for all workers.

With a concerted effort throughout the states, it is a policy that brings together public health advocates, unions, faith-based organizations, low-wage worker advocates, and women’s rights groups.  Such a campaign also forces conservatives to either live up to their rhetoric of “family values” and help enact the policy or choose the interests of bad employers over the interests of families.

Table of Contents:

- Summary of Paid Sick Days Policy and Why It Matters

- Messaging on Paid Sick Days

- Building Paid Sick Days Campaigns

- PSN Support in Your States

Summary of Paid Sick Days Policy and Why It Matters

State policy should require employers to allow workers to accumulate paid sick days based on the number of hours or weeks they have worked and allow those paid sick days to be used to take care of their own illness, that of a family member, or to deal with an abusive relationship.  While many states provide certain public employees with paid sick leave, workers in the private sector generally lack specific time off for illness.

Why It Matters:  Paid sick days allow workers to be more productive, improve the general public health, and allow employees to take care of medical needs without fearing employer retaliation or losing incomes.  Although many Americans believe that they are entitled to paid sick leave for themselves or for family members, more than 22 million working women lack paid sick days, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.  The burden on working parents is especially strong when children fall ill, since 70% of workers do not have the right to paid sick days that can be used to care for a sick child.  16% of workers report in polling that they or a family member have been fired, suspended, or otherwise punished or that they would be fired if they missed work due to illness.

Fortunately, cities such as San Francisco, CA, Washington, DC, and Milwaukee, WI have successfully passed mandatory paid sick days, while multiple states have introduced variations on the bill.  All states already provide paid sick days to their own employees.  Eight states— California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin— allow workers who already have paid sick days to use them to care for certain family members.  So moving towards paid sick days for all workers is the next step towards assuring that all families have options when they or family members fall ill.

Summary of Policy Details:  The National Partnership for Women & Families  and A Better Balance, with technical assistance from the San Francisco Office of Labor Standards and Enforcement, have drafted model legislation for local advocates considering launching a paid sick days campaign.  

Bill Summaries
Paid Sick Days and Safe Time Main Points
Paid Sick Days and Safe Days Model, Explained Section by Section

Model Legislation
Model Paid Sick Day and Safe Time Bill

Key provisions include:

  • Accrual of Days:  Under paid sick days policy, workers would accrue one hour of paid sick and safe time for every 30 hours worked (or other block of time chosen by policymakers) with some maximum amount earned each year. 
  • Uses of Sick and Safe Days:  Paid sick and safe time should be available to care for a worker's own illness, to care for a family member and to address issues arising from domestic violence or sexual assault.
  • Anti-Retaliation:  One key provision in any paid sick days law must be tough anti-retaliation language to assure that employees taking advantage of their rights are not punished directly or indirectly for doing so.
  • Treatment of Small Businesses:  Policymakers may want to create a different amount of paid sick days that can be accrued for small businesses and decide how long an employee must work for a business before using paid sick and safe time.  However, while polling shows some support for requiring smaller employers to provide a smaller number of days off than larger employers, only 15% of the public thinks small business should be exempted from paid sick days requirements altogether.

Messaging on Paid Sick Days

Enacting paid sick days legislation is one of the most popular possible initiatives with the public, according to opinion surveys.  As mentioned above, 86% of the public (including 75% of Republicans) favor a basic labor standard that would guarantee all workers a minimum number of paid sick days.  This translates politically into 46% of the public saying that a politician supporting such legislation would make them more likely to vote for them, with only 10% saying it would make them less likely to support them at election time.  State polling in California, Connecticut, Maine, Ohio and North Carolina have all shown similar levels of support for paid sick days legislation.

Make Paid Sick Days a Values Issue:  Proponents of paid sick days legislation should make the issue a key part of a values debate in the states.  If the issue becomes one of values, this will force conservative opponents of the legislation into the position of being seen as anti-family and not caring about public health.  Politically, it can also drive a rift between grassroots “family values” conservative voters and elected officials who choose the interests of bad employers over the interests of families.  In polls, 77% of the public found the following statement a convincing values argument for paid sick days:

In America, you shouldn't have to risk your job to take care of your family, and you shouldn't have to put your family at risk just to do your job...  Our nation needs new labor standards to accommodate the needs of today's working families.  If we believe in family values, it's time to value families.

Win or lose, paid sick days campaigns are a chance to put "family values" conservatives on the record so that voters can see whether their rhetoric extends to helping parents when they need to stay home with a sick child. 

Public Policy Arguments in favor of Paid Sick Days Legislation:  To cement public support for paid sick days, state leaders can emphasize a few key policy points:

  • Paid Sick Days Promote Public Health:  When people work sick or have to send their children to school sick, this undermines both family health and the health of the rest of our communities.  Yet, one poll in Ohio found that half the respondents had gone to work sick to avoid losing pay.  For, example, nearly half of stomach “flu”-related outbreaks caused by the norovirus are linked to ill food-service workers.  Viruses spread more quickly when adults and children don't stay home, while children infecting playmates and those playmates infecting their parents in turn.  All children recover faster when parents care for them and it reduces health care costs. Paid sick days would help those with chronic illness seek preventive care that would save billions, since 78% of health care dollars are spent on those with chronic conditions.
  • Paid Sick Days Helps Parents Balance Work and Family:  More than 94 million working people do not have a paid sick day to care for a sick child, yet most child-care facilities have policies requiring sick children to stay home.  Working parents with paid sick time or paid vacation days are five times more likely to stay home to care for their sick children than those without paid time off.
  • Paid Sick Days Provides Economic Security for Individuals in Recession:  With over ten percent of  American workers unemployed, employees without legal paid sick days are even less likely to risk their jobs asking for a day off when sick.  And with many families facing at least one member without a job or with reduced hours, most workers cannot afford to take an unpaid day off even when needed. 
  • Paid Sick Days Helps Victims of Domestic Violence:  With "safe days," victims of domestic violence can gain the opportunity to take the steps needed to separate from an abusive partner.  Between 25 and 50 percent of victims report losing a job, at least in part, due to dealing with domestic violence.

Dealing with Potential Business Opposition:   While some businesses are reluctant to individually offer days off, the cumulative effect of illness spreading across the country due to people and their children not staying home when sick hurts the overall economy.  It is estimated that people working while sick costs the national economy as much as $180 billion per year in lost work and productivity.  Add in the costs of children sent to school because their parents couldn't afford to stay home with them, thereby spreading illness to additional families, and the economic costs to businesses just mount higher.

While many of the established business lobbies defer to their worst employer members in opposing paid sick days legislation, there are employers who recognize that we all lose out economically when pandemics are allowed to spread because people work sick and parents can't stay home with their sick kids.  See this CLASP primer on outreach to local businesses to build business support for the policy.

And the public does not believe that paid sick days legislation will hurt businesses or their profits.  In fact, 82% of the public agrees with the following statement (and 57% find this statement "very convincing"):

Requiring paid sick days doesn't hurt employers' bottom line.  Sick employees who show up at work are less productive and they remain sick and less productive longer when they work while sick.  Also, they infect other workers and this further reduces productivity and hurts profits.

If these public concerns are continually highlighted in legislative debates, there will be little public support for the business opponents of paid sick days policy arguing it will somehow undermine the economy or individual businesses.  Instead, they will recognize that paid sick days is ultimately a benefit to the economy and to individual businesses thinking about long-term productivity.

Building Paid Sick Days Campaigns

Progressive States Network is working with a range of allied organizations so state leaders can tap resources from those groups to help them in their legislative work.  We will be working with those allies to strengthen communication between legislators and organizational allies across the states working on paid sick days, while providing other technical support as needed during policy campaigns.

National groups working on paid sick days include the National Partnership for Women & Families, CLASP, ACORN, MomsRising, National Association of Working Women (9to5), and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

A number of state-based alliances currently supporting paid sick days are organized under the umbrella of the Family Values @ Work Consortium and the National Partnership tracks state campaigns on their website as well.

Some Key Resources:  A number of organizations provide research and other tools to support paid sick day campaigns in the states, including:

PSN Support in Your States

PSN has already begun working with legislators and advocates to provide support for them as they introduce paid sick days legislation around the country.  We'd like to work with many more!

Our policy staff are also available to answer questions and supply information not on the website.  Legislators and advocates can contact us about supporting Paid Sick Days campaigns through our website or by emailing

As bills are introduced and sessions begin, PSN will provide ongoing resources and updates on paid sick days legislation, as well as help coordinate strategy and information sharing with our partners among sponsors and advocates.