Wealthy Frenchman

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Right to Paid Sick Days

It sounds reasonable: seven paid sick days a year. Why should you have to lose a couple of days pay, or maybe even your job, because you had the misfortune to catch the flu?

And it certainly seems unreasonable to penalize an employee in good standing who misses a day or two of work to care for a child who is ill or has met with a serious accident.

After all, this is the 21st century.

The reality, for a surprising percentage of the U.S. population, is more like the 19th century. Nearly half of all full-time private sector workers in the U.S. get no paid sick days. None. If one of those workers woke up with excruciating pains in his or her chest and had to be rushed to a hospital — well, no pay for that day. For many of these workers, the cost of an illness could be the loss of their job.

The situation is ridiculous for those in the lowest quarter of U.S. wage earners. Nearly 80 percent of those workers — the very ones who can least afford to lose a day’s pay — get no paid sick days at all.

I recently spoke with Bertha Brown, a home health aide who lives in Philadelphia and has two young daughters. She makes $7 an hour caring for people who are ill or disabled. “I feed them and dress them,” she said. “And if they have to be changed, I do all that.”

She has worked for the better part of two decades without ever being paid for a sick day. And her wages are so low she can’t afford to lose even a day’s pay. “If I get sick, I work sick,” she said. “I cover my nose and my mouth with a mask to keep my clients from getting sick.”

Food service workers are among those least likely to get paid sick days. Eighty-six percent get no sick days at all. They show up in the restaurants coughing and sneezing and feverish, and they start preparing and serving meals. You won’t see many of them wearing masks.

There’s an effort under way to change this picture. A growing number of organizations and activists are lining up behind proposed federal legislation that would give most workers the right to seven paid sick days annually to take care of their medical needs or those of their families. The legislation, sponsored by Senator Edward Kennedy and Representative Rosa DeLauro, would require employers with 15 or more workers to provide the sick days.

Among the organizations pushing for paid sick days is the Public Welfare Foundation in Washington, which recently approved a $1 million “special initiative” on the issue. Deborah Leff, the foundation’s president, noted that it’s the poorest workers who most often are forced to choose between going to work sick or losing a day’s pay, and that a disproportionate number of those workers are women — many of them with children.

“At least 145 countries have paid sick days,” said Ms. Leff. “The United States is the only industrialized country lacking such a policy. Our goal is to change that.”

An overwhelming majority of Americans favor paid sick days for full-time workers. One poll showed that 95 percent of workers find it “unacceptable” for employers to deny sick days to workers. But the Kennedy-DeLauro legislation is facing a tough road.

As one might imagine, the industries that would be affected are ice-cold to the idea.

The response of Cracker Barrel Old Country Store to my inquiries on this issue is illustrative. A spokeswoman said in an e-mail message: “Because employees working in the restaurants have flexible schedules, they can schedule doctors’ appointments and other appointments that sick leave and personal time are generally used for at times when they are not working.

“If employees need to miss a shift due to illness, there are generally many opportunities to make up that lost shift later in the week, or the next week.”

That is the kind of workplace policy that prompts Debra Ness, the president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, to note that “for millions of workers, getting sick can mean the beginning of an economic disaster.”

Allowing a worker to recuperate from an illness, or take care of a sick child, without suffering undue economic hardship should be a matter of basic humanity and fundamental decency. It should not be politically controversial in a country that considers itself the most advanced on the face of the earth, and that babbles incessantly about the importance of family values.


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