420,000 More Workers in Cook County Will Soon Have Paid Sick Leave

Jonathan Timm October 13, 2016

Cook County workers will be eligible for 40 hours, or about five days, of sick time per year, the same as workers in Chicago. (Arise Chicago Facebook)

The Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca: land of lib­er­ty, bas­tion of oppor­tu­ni­ty, the world’s lead­ing eco­nom­ic power.

But if you’re a low-wage work­er and wake up sick, you’d bet­ter clock in on time or you risk los­ing your wages and even your job.

Paid time off for ill­ness, tak­en for grant­ed in pro­fes­sion­al sec­tors and much of the devel­oped world, remains out of reach for mil­lions of Amer­i­can work­ers. The Unit­ed States is the only major devel­oped coun­try that does not guar­an­tee paid sick days to all work­ers by law. Fed­er­al data show that more than one-third of pri­vate sec­tor work­ers through­out the Unit­ed States do not receive paid sick leave. 

A dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of those with­out paid sick days are women, peo­ple of col­or and peo­ple with low incomes. Though women are the pri­ma­ry care­givers in most fam­i­lies, they also make up the major­i­ty of work­ers in low-wage jobs that do not offer paid sick days. Access is par­tic­u­lar­ly bad for His­pan­ic work­ersresearchers have found that less than half get paid sick days, com­pared to 60 per­cent of work­ers over­all. And for both women and men, fed­er­al data show that the high­est paid work­ers over­whelm­ing­ly have access to paid sick days, while most of the poor­est work­ers do not.

But this month, the Cook Coun­ty Board of Com­mis­sion­ers in Illi­nois took a major step toward chang­ing that. The board approved leg­is­la­tion that guar­an­tees paid sick days to all work­ers in the coun­ty, bring­ing the Chica­go sub­urbs in line with the city. Chica­go passed its own paid sick leave ordi­nance in June.

Under the ordi­nance, Cook Coun­ty work­ers will be eli­gi­ble for 40 hours, or about five days, of sick time per year, the same as work­ers in Chica­go. The Chica­go Tri­bune reports that more than 900,000 work­ers in the coun­ty don’t cur­rent­ly have paid sick days, includ­ing 420,000 in the sub­urbs. The new laws in Chica­go and Cook Coun­ty will take effect July 12017.

Melis­sa Josephs, direc­tor of equal oppor­tu­ni­ty pol­i­cy for the advo­ca­cy group Women Employed, helped cam­paign for the law.

All employ­ees — no mat­ter their occu­pa­tion — should have the peace of mind to know they can take time off work for their own ill­ness or to care for a sick fam­i­ly mem­ber with­out fear of los­ing their job or a day’s pay,” says Josephs.

Cook County’s deci­sion is the most recent vic­to­ry in what seems to be a grow­ing move­ment for paid sick leave. Since 2006, 38 local­i­ties in the Unit­ed States have passed sick leave leg­is­la­tion. This year alone, 12 paid sick leave laws have been passed across the coun­try, includ­ing in Ver­mont and major cities like Los Ange­les and San Diego.

Also this year, the momen­tum for paid sick leave reached the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion. At the direc­tion of the Pres­i­dent, the Depart­ment of Labor issued new rules requir­ing fed­er­al con­trac­tors to pro­vide up to 56 hours, or more than a week, of paid sick leave per year, which will impact more than a mil­lion work­ers when they go into effect.

Tama­ra Green, 29, did not have access to paid sick leave until recent­ly. A few years ago, she was work­ing for a major fast-food chain in New York City. She was also tak­ing care of her moth­er, who is HIV pos­i­tive. One day, her moth­er fell ill unex­pect­ed­ly and Green asked her boss if she could leave. Her boss told her that if she left, she would con­sid­er it a walk-off and she would not be paid.

How do you keep going if some­one you love is ill or, God for­bid, dies, and you’re not there because your boss said she need­ed you to drop some more fries?” asked Green. That’s not OK.”

Paid sick leave ben­e­fits more than indi­vid­ual work­ers like Green. Research has found that giv­ing work­ers the abil­i­ty to stay home when they’re sick with­out sac­ri­fic­ing their wages ben­e­fits pub­lic health and the econ­o­my. Paid sick days lead to high­er rates of pre­ven­ta­tive med­ical care, includ­ing mam­mo­grams and Pap tests, decrease work­place injuries and reduce rates of ill­ness.

Oppo­nents have argued that sick leave laws bur­den busi­ness­es or force them to make pay cuts. But an analy­sis by the Insti­tute for Women’s Pol­i­cy Research found that sick leave pos­es min­i­mal costs to employ­ers. The cost of paid sick leave poli­cies to employ­ers in Seat­tle, for exam­ple, was less than one per­cent of rev­enue on aver­age. What’s more, research indi­cates that the costs of paid sick leave would be at least par­tial­ly off­set by ben­e­fits to employ­ers like reduced turnover, increased morale and increased productivity.

The build­ing momen­tum for paid sick days sug­gests that local law­mak­ers as well as the gen­er­al pub­lic are see­ing these ben­e­fits. Nation­al sur­veys have shown that the major­i­ty of the pub­lic sup­ports laws that would man­date paid sick leave.

But at the state and fed­er­al lev­el, it’s an uphill bat­tle. Between 2000 and 2013, state leg­is­la­tures in 10 states—the major­i­ty of which were con­trolled by Repub­li­cans — passed laws that pro­hib­it local gov­ern­ments from man­dat­ing paid sick days. The Healthy Fam­i­lies Act, which would man­date paid sick time to most work­ers nation­wide, has been stuck in Con­gress for years.

At her new job, Tama­ra Green final­ly has access to paid sick days. She says know­ing that she can care for her­self or her moth­er dur­ing an emer­gency means she no longer has to choose health over wealth,” and she hopes to see the day when no one in the world has to make that choice.

To know that I have that option to take the day off with­out los­ing a way to pay my bills, that’s a relief that some peo­ple can’t even under­stand,” Green says. One missed doctor’s appoint­ment could be the last time to say goodbye.” 

Jonathan Timm is a free­lance reporter who spe­cial­izes in labor and gen­der issues. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @jdrtimm.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH