Getting Real about Paid Sick Days

Have you seen the contest floating around Facebook called “Sick Just Got Real?” You’re supposed to send in a selfie or YouTube video answering a question such as this: “What’s your first thought when you hear the kids cough?” Those who enter become eligible for a chance to win a $25 Amazon gift card.

The sponsor isn’t one of the Family Values @ Work coalitions fighting for–and winning–paid sick days. Instead, it’s the Pfizer Corporation. In case you’re not familiar, they describe themselves as “one of the premier biopharmaceutical companies” in the U.S.

Turns out “Sick Just Got Real” is a marketing device to promote the company’s cold and flu meds.

For 40 million Americans, sick “gets real” all the time–only the problem is much worse than a ruined party or no time to meditate, as described in the videos I watched. Kids don’t just chug cough syrup and bounce back. They need rest, they need not to spread germs, and they need TLC. Yet staying home to provide that care for a child or for yourself can mean the loss of pay and even the loss of a job.

Doug Geisler / Creative Commons

Ask Jibril Wallace, who’s been working at the same Safeway in Washington, D.C. for 28 years, since she was a teenager helping her mother pay the bills. Now her income helps support her two kids, ages 18 and 8. For much of that time, as someone who works less than 40 hours, she had no paid sick days.

“When you were sick, you went to work,” Jibril said. “[Y]ou’d just medicate yourself, go in and pray you’ll feel better. I had to support myself.” Jibril described the reckoning she’d go through, imagining the loss of a day’s pay. Because their hours fluctuate so much, many employees have to arrange before- and after-school care. Losing just eight hours’ pay represents the weekly payment for that care.

But since D.C.’s paid sick days law was expanded to include part-time workers, Jibril has a new peace of mind. “It’s awesome to know you have that cushion,” Jibril said, “especially when you’re part time. Everybody gets sick, or has a parent or kid who’s sick. This really helps out.”

Paid sick days can also be used for preventive care, annual physicals and health screenings. Researchers found that workers with no paid sick days were 40 percent less likely to have had a cholesterol check that can prevent a heart attack, 30 percent less likely to have had a blood pressure check and 61 percent less likely to have had a flu shot–even if they had a condition like cardiovascular disease that puts them at higher risk for illness.

Our movement has now won paid sick days in 40 locations, and more wins are on the horizon. A definitive body of evidence proves the benefits to workers, families, businesses and public health. But in many cities and states, people see conservative legislators stand in the way of any such change.

On March 15, Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Sen. Patty Murray reintroduced the Healthy Families Act with greater support than ever before. This bill would establish a nationwide standard of up to seven paid sick and safe days. In addition to guaranteeing paid sick time to those who have none, it would ensure that people can use that time to care for a sick family member or to deal with the aftermath of domestic or sexual violence. The bill recognizes families of every shape and size so that all workers are able to care for their loved ones.

We need national legislation supporting paid sick days, and getting real means getting involved. Contact your representatives—not Pfizer—to share your story of what happens when the kids start coughing, dad needs help getting to the doctor or you can’t pick your head up from the pillow—and let them know that they can show their support for working families by signing on to the Healthy Families Act.


Ellen Bravo is strategic consultant to Family Values @ Work, a network of 27 state coalitions working for paid sick and safe days, family and medical leave insurance and other policies that value families at work.