DMI Blog

Corinne Ramey

Why There Were Germs on the Steps of City Hall, or What I Learned About Paid Sick Leave

Until recently, I had never thought much about paid sick leave. But within this past week, leading up to an event on Wednesday that featured Sara Flocks, the co-founder of Young Workers United and one of the prominent voices behind San Francisco's first-in-the-nation paid sick leave law, I've become a big fan of this policy.

This is some of what I learned:

* Anecdotally, paid sick leave is a good idea. Flocks told story after story of workers who were forced to go to work sick. She told of a server at the Cheesecake Factory whose boss told her that she would be fired if she didn't show up for work, despite the fact that she had pinkeye. So the boss "allowed" the sever to wear sunglasses. (Call me crazy, but I don't like people with pinkeye touching my food.) In another example, a woman who was pregnant and hemorrhaging lost her job because her boss told her that if she didn't come to work she'd get fired.

Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who was on the panel, gave what was perhaps the scariest example, telling of a hotel worker in Nevada who went to work sick and infected 600 hotel guests. "It's not only a moral issue but a social issue," she said.

* The statistics agree with the anecdotes.
Forty-six million U.S. private sector employees don't have paid sick leave. One in three employees worry that taking time off when they are sick would jeopardize their job, and 58% of employees without paid sick leave say they cannot afford to take unpaid time off work when they become ill. Working when sick is especially common among restaurant workers. Eighty-six percent of food and accommodation workers don't have paid sick leave and 52% of NYC restaurant workers say they've gone to work when sick.

The public is largely supportive of paid sick leave policies: 80% of Americans think that employers should be required to provide paid sick days. The U.S. is falling behind the rest of the world on this issue. One hundred and thirty six countries require employers to provide a week or more of paid sick leave to employees, but the U.S. has no such requirement.

* There's no real disadvantage to this policy. At the DMI event on Monday, Andrea Batista Schlesinger read from a web memo on paid sick leave written by the Heritage Foundation (Check out the clip on YouTube). The memo gave three reasons why the Foundation doesn't support paid sick leave. They are

"1. Some workers have used FMLA to excuse tardiness and to skip work.
2. Co-workers face the burden of covering for shirking employees who misuse their leave.
3. Customers suffer unpredictable delays and shortcomings in service."

And ironically, the Heritage Foundation does offer paid sick leave to their employees. Don't they have to worry about tardy employees and covering shirking co-workers?

According to Flocks, the cost of paid sick leave is minimal, especially considering that not having sick workers in the workplace boosts productivity and prevents the spread of disease. The biggest concern of small business owners that YWU spoke with was how to keep track of the days, not the actual cost of workers not working when they were sick. She said that a lot of businesses wanted to provide paid sick leave, but didn't provide it because their competitors didn't. "We're leveling the playing field," she said.

* If San Francisco can do it, other cities can do it, too. Before the event, I had looked around the web for information on the San Francisco campaign. I was pretty surprised -- besides the website for Young Workers United, there wasn't much out there. But after hearing Sara Flocks speak, I began to understand why. Much of the audience that YWU was targeting was not an audience that used the web as a primary source of information. So instead the group disseminated its message through Spanish media, Chinese media, and bus ads. They even dressed up as germs and demonstrated on the steps of City Hall.

Flocks said ones of the reason the campaign was so successful was that YWU was able to build successful coalitions between unions, immigrant rights groups, and other organizations. They also negotiated and talked directly with groups that were against the law (like the restaurant association) and cooperated to write a law that all parties could live with. These same tactics could be used to successfully pass legislation in other cities.

Following in San Francisco's footsteps, Washington, D.C., passed a paid sick leave bill, and there is currently national legislation called the Healthy Families Act, which was introduced in the House this March.

For more on paid sick leave, check out the Paid Sick Leave Injustice Index, the liveblog of the Marketplace of Ideas event, and DMI's YouTube channel, which has clips from the event.

Corinne Ramey: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 6:21 AM, Jun 01, 2008 in Health Care
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