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License to Ill

By Matt Singer Friday December 8, 2006 CampusProgress.org Is there something pathological about Americans that we like to make it horribly expensive to get sick? In addition to not addressing the uninsured crisis we punish people who get sick. Unlike our counterparts in most developed nations, American workers are not allowed to get sick. Many American workers, especially the middle-class and working-class, have no paid sick days under their employment policies, because they are not mandated by law. Work as a server at a restaurant and catch the flu? Your options are pretty much give up your pay or spread the disease to all your tables (it’s just karma for the ones who don’t tip well, right?). For most workers, giving up pay is not a real option. Rent has to be paid at the end of the month. Food has to be put on the table. And what about the single parent with a sick child? Is he supposed to go to work and leave a sick kid at home or skip work and lose the income that would pay for his child’s medicine? Or should he go to work and send his sick child to school to infect other children? These are common problems, because in addition of the tens of millions of American workers who have no paid sick days, additional tens of millions cannot use theirs to care for a sick family member. (The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires businesses to provide up to 12 weeks of leave per calendar year for employees who get sick, or who have a sick loved one. However, the time is unpaid and the law only applies to businesses that employ more than 50 people.) The costs for the economy are high. Workers who choose to show up while under-the-weather suffer from low productivity, can spread their disease co-workers and clients, and generally hurt business. In most cases, the business is literally better off if the worker stays home. That doesn’t stop business owners from making a range of excuses for why paid sick days are an awful idea. Some claim that it is tough to find a replacement worker. That, of course, is a blatant admission that the employer thinks sick people should be working. The sharper ones point out that paying both workers when they are not present and the temps or co-workers who fill in for the ill workers incurs costs for business. But not providing paid sick days means workers are less likely to take the time off, since an unpaid day of leave can be a big deal for people living month-to-month. When those workers show up, they tend to be unproductive anyway, so not offering paid sick days leaves you with sick workers who also incur costs. Fortunately, this issue is moving to the front-burner. Chris Hayes recently wrote for The Nation that “[a]fter raising the minimum wage, economic justice priority number two for the Democratic congress should be mandating paid sick days for all workers.”? The new Congress might be willing to move on this issue, but the National Federation of Independent Business is already encouraging a filibuster. Other than the filibuster, the biggest problem facing proponents may be misinformation: A large majority of Americans already assume the law requires employers to offer paid sick days. Action is far more likely””as it is with most issues””to come from the states, where various forms of sick day legislation have advanced in recent years. These are some of the options being explored:
  • Unpaid Leave. This is the bare minimum ”“ simply ensuring that people can take time off to recuperate or care for a sick loved one without facing negative repercussions, but they do not get paid for the time. While that is already required of larger businesses, some advocates are trying to mandate the same for smaller companies not covered by the FMLA.
  • Extending Paid Sick Days to Care Days. Currently, many workers have paid sick days, but they can’t be used to care for family members. These bills would ensure that at least some days can be used for that purpose.
  • Universal Paid Sick Days. These policies mandate a floor for companies in terms of how many paid sick days all workers must be offered.
Already, campaigns are expected in Maine, Maryland, Montana, and other states. No doubt these efforts will face local opposition. But opponents may also come to the same realization as the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, which decided not to waste resources fighting a recent paid sick days ballot initiative in San Francisco (the measure passed overwhelmingly). Dan Scherotter, their vice president, told the press, “It polls too high. I mean if you ask people, ”ËœWould you like more sick pay,’ everybody is going to say yes. And to be honest, if we fight it, we look like complete jerks.”? All the more reason for progressives to bring this fight. Matt Singer is the Communications Director for the Progressive States Network and has been a contributor to CampusProgress.org since its inception.