It’s Just Sick to Withhold Paid Sick Leave

As temperatures dip lower this holiday season, many of us will get sick. Whether we can afford to stay home from work may depend on where we live.

Seven U.S. cities, Washington, D.C., and the state of Connecticut guarantee workers paid sick leave. The rest of the country does not. New Jersey’s largest city, Newark, was expected to pass a law requiring paid sick leave on Wednesday, but delayed a vote until January. Nonetheless, with the states of New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oregon and Vermont and the city of Tacoma, Wash., working on paid sick leave legislation, this very significant public policy is moving to the forefront of public discussion.

The U.S. is the only economically advanced country in the world that does not require employers to provide their workers with paid sick days, and as a result one in three U.S. workers don’t receive them as an employment benefit. The exclusion is appalling, says Ellen Bravo, director of the Family Values @ Work Consortium:

Everyone gets the flu and earaches and colds. We all need some time that is affordable to care for a routine illness or a loved one.

Bravo says many workers without paid sick leave tell her they are willing to “suck it up” and go to work when they are sick, but they’d prefer to stay home when their children are sick. Others need time off to care for an elderly parent. But the threat of losing a day’s pay or their job is often a deterrent. According to a study by the University of Chicago, nearly 20 percent of workers have been fired or threatened to be fired for taking a needed sick day, and most are low-wage workers who have much to lose.

Going to work sick has effects on public health as well. Most low-wage and part-time restaurant workers do not receive paid sick leave and may be stuck preparing or serving food while ill. Furthermore, the Centers for Disease Control estimated that an additional 5 million people got the flu in 2009 because of restrictive workplace polices such as unpaid sick leave. Says Bravo,

When the CDC says, ‘When you have symptoms of the flu, stay home. If your child has them, keep them home,’ they don’t say, ‘Employers, you can’t punish [workers taking time off for illness] for following our orders.’ We’re in trouble as a nation. … We know that the workers who most need [paid sick leave] are the least likely to have it. It’s disproportionately women, it’s disproportionately workers of color and [many are] certainly low-wage workers. [Paid sick leave is] good for families, it’s good for business and it’s good for the economy, as well as for public health.

Photo of children advocating for paid sick days in 2008 in Milwaukee, Wis., before winning (and eventually losing) the right to paid sick leave in the city,  from Flickr user Voces de la Frontera under license Creative Commons 2.0.