Paid Sick Days Would Boost Rhode Island's Health

Op-Ed by Amy Traub (Drum Major Institute) and Nathan Newman (Progressive States Network)
Providence Journal
May 18, 2010

Last fall, Rhode Island Health Department Director David Gifford missed a key press briefing about the state’s effort to combat the H1N1 flu pandemic. He wasn’t shirking his duty — in fact, Rhode Island received national praise for its H1N1 response, and ranked first among states in the rate of vaccination. On the contrary, Dr. Gifford was doing what he advised all Rhode Islanders to do: he stayed home that day because he was feeling sick.

Unfortunately, nearly 200,000 working Rhode Islanders find it difficult, if not impossible, to follow his example: 46 percent of the state’s private-sector workforce lacks a single paid sick day to care for themselves or a sick child. As a result, ailing employees are saddled with an unfair choice; either go to work sick and risk infecting others, or miss a day’s pay and risk losing their job.

A bill now before the General Assembly solves the problem by guaranteeing every worker in the state the right to earn paid sick leave. The Healthy and Safe Families and Workplaces Act would boost public health, reduce medical costs, increase workplace productivity and improve quality of life for Rhode Island residents. It’s not a pie-in-the-sky proposition: in at least 145 countries, employers are required to provide paid sick days to their workforce, and U.S. cities such as San Francisco and Washington have implemented similar laws successfully. Hard evidence and data reveal that paid sick leave is very sound policy. Rhode Island should not hesitate to adopt it.

The proposed law here would enable employees to accrue an hour of paid sick time for every thirty hours they work, for a maximum of seven days a year. For small businesses, the requirement would be limited to four days a year. Workers could use the time in a variety of ways: to see a doctor, recuperate from an illness or injury, care for a sick family member, or if their workplace or their child’s school was closed because of a public health emergency. And victims of domestic abuse, sexual assault or stalking would also be able to get counseling or other critical help.

Paid sick time is not an expensive benefit. Calculations based on research by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research reveal that the average cost to Rhode Island employers would amount to less than 18 cents per employee hour worked. And even these modest costs would be offset by robust benefits such as increased productivity, lower employee turnover, and a reduction in the spread of flu and other contagious diseases. It’s no wonder that San Francisco’s restaurant association, initially among the strongest opponents of guaranteeing paid sick time, later described the law as “successful” and acknowledged that employee abuse of the new benefit was not widespread. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce told The Wall Street Journal: “We really have not heard much about it being a major issue for a lot of businesses.” The message is clear: healthy workers and healthy businesses can coexist.

San Francisco’s experience shows that granting paid sick time doesn’t harm job growth. In the first year after San Francisco implemented its law, job growth remained strong, especially compared with surrounding counties that did not guarantee paid sick time. Once the recession hit, the entire country suffered rising unemployment, yet San Francisco still fared better than the counties around it — or many other cities that failed to guarantee workers’ time off for illness. Although we can’t infer that guaranteeing paid sick time actually increases economic growth, there’s no evidence that it harms employment.

Rhode Island has long been a leader in the field of public health. At the turn of the last century, State Health Officer Dr. Charles V. Chapin pioneered sanitation and hygiene techniques that set national standards. In 1942, the Ocean State was the first in the nation to establish a temporary disability insurance system to compensate workers for wages lost as a result of a disability.

Now, by passing paid sick-time legislation, Rhode Island has a chance to join other states and jurisdictions that have proven that protecting public health and promoting workplace well-being can be an integral part of the engine of economic recovery.

Amy Traub is director of research at the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy. Nathan Newman is executive director of the Progressive States Network.