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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Apr 28, 2010, 7:44 am

Mandated Paid Sick Days: Finally Coming to America?

BY David Moberg

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Doormen work at their building in Manhattan on April 14, 2010, in New York City. Doormen, handymen, porters and other apartment workers threatened to strike in part to retain sick days.   (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)


As the Capitol’s attention focused on financial reform early this week, a couple hundred dedicated citizen-lobbyists took to the halls of Congress to push for a long-delayed, highly popular bill that's perhaps just as crucial for the well-being of millions of working families. 

It’s the Healthy Families Act, which would require all employers of 15 or more workers to provide paid sick leave–at least seven days a year for full-time workers, and pro-rated paid time off for part-time workers.

The United States is one of the few countries in the world not to mandate paid time off to care for their own or a family member’s illness. As a result, more than 50 million workers do not get paid sick days. They are disproportionately workers who earn low wages, work in small businesses, perform service jobs, or work part-time. Even though 61 percent of private sector workers in 2009 had some paid sick days (on average eight after a year’s employment), there is some evidence that coverage of low-wage workers has recently dropped sharply.

The arrangement is completely perverse: those who could best afford to take unpaid days off for sickness have the greatest flexibility and most paid days off, and those who can’t afford to miss a day’s work even when sick, have little flexibility and few or no sick days that are paid–or for practical purposes, despite the law, even unpaid.

Workers like Christina DeHaro of San Jose, Calif., suffer much more than a day at work feeling lousy as a result of these policies. DeHaro had no sick days working as a temp at a packing company. Because she could not afford to miss a single ill-paid day, she continued to work despite suffering from  bronchitis, then ended up with pneumonia.  When she missed too much work, the temp agency fired her.

It might seem that elementary fairness and humanity, not to mention near universality, would be argument enough on behalf of requiring paid sick leave.  But that’s not enough to win the day in contemporary American politics, and advocates must make broader arguments for the policy’s economic benefits–which luckily are extensive.

So Ellen Bravo, director of Family Values At Work (a coalition of 14 statewide grass-roots organizations pushing for paid sick leave locally, statewide and nationally in many cases), tells members of Congress that the proposed requirement both continues the work of healthcare reform or cost containment and also contributes to job and economic security–both top political priorities.

“This is the logical next step to take on health care reform and assure that people have time to go to the doctor,” she says. “Then there will be more emphasis on preventative care, less spread of contagious disease, and less use of emergency rooms,” not only by people without insurance but also by people with insurance who can not easily find time to see a doctor before getting seriously sick.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) projects that The Healthy Families Act would save workers $100 million a year on seasonal flu, plus uncalculated savings for employers and insurance companies and $700 million additional if workers can take time off to care for children and the elderly. 

Now workers often show up at work sick, accomplishing little except to spread disease. IWPR also argues that paid sick days will allow workers to pursue preventative care and to better manage chronic diseases, which together would keep people healthier and reduce costs.  Nearly half of expensive emergency room visits could be eliminated with proper primary and preventative care, saving upwards of $15 billion a year.

IWPR also estimates that paid sick days would reduce turnover and increase productivity, “producing billions in annual savings for employers and the broader economy.” And the cost for the average private sector employer that provides paid sick days is only 23 cents an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Although the Healthy Families Act would unfortunately leave out 20 million working for very small businesses, it would cover 30 million new workers,  half of them low earners. Plus it would secure the rights of those who have paid sick days at the company’s volition now. Bravo notes that many big businesses officially offer but discourage use of sick days, even penalizing workers for using them. A 2006 survey by the University of California Hastings School of Law reported one in six workers or a family member had been fired, punished or threatened by their boss for taking time off to care for themselves or an ill family member.

Despite the potential gains–in productivity, reduced illness, lower turnover, and more satisfied workforce–corporate lobbyists are fighting hard against the legislation, using economic hard times as a rationale.  “The people who created this crisis by refusing to follow the rules for Wall Street are now trying to block modest rules for corporations so that people can take care of themselves and their families,” Bravo says.
The Obama administration supports the bill, which has 124 House sponsors and 24 in the Senate–a surprisingly modest show of support for a bill first introduced five years ago by Sen. Ted Kennedy and a sure-fire political winner. It still has not been voted out of committee in either house. But even if the national legislation does not come to a vote this year, advocates are pushing for comparable laws in at least 15 states, with a vote possible soon in Massachusetts. San Francisco and the District of Columbia have implemented city ordinances; Milwaukee passed one now blocked by a lawsuit; and New York’s city council may soon vote on its proposal.

So progress is possible–though it remains amazing to contemplate how hard it is even to make such modest, common-sense reforms.

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at

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