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A New Labor Standard for Labor Day: Paid Sick Leave

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You wake up Monday morning with a throbbing headache, achy muscles and a hacking cough. Do you miserably trudge into work, likely prolonging your recovery time and exposing your co-workers to infection? Or do you give your body the time it needs to heal, and call in sick? Can you afford to?

For almost 40 percent of the nation's private workforce, the answer to that last question is no. A recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows only 33 percent of workers earning $10.50 an hour or less have access to paid sick leave, compared with 81 percent of those earning $24.22 an hour or more. This means, perversely, that if you can afford to take an unpaid sick day, you generally don't have to.

Politicians and policy advocates across the country are aware of this squeeze on working families, and paid sick leave bills have been introduced at the city, state, and national levels. Most of these proposals are based on the earned sick time model: Employees must work, say, 30 hours to earn one hour of sick leave. Those earned hours accumulate, eventually, into full paid sick days. All the proposals include a cap on the number of mandated paid sick days. Most require five to nine days a year. Some allow employees to carry over unused sick days from one year to the next.

"The economic climate makes it even more important for lawmakers to act because, in this economy, workers can ill-afford to miss a paycheck or risk the long-term unemployment that often follows losing a job," said Vicki Shabo, Director of Work & Family Programs for the National Partnership for Women & Families. "Workers shouldn't have to put their economic stability and job security on the line every time they get sick. It's bad for business, bad for workers, and bad public policy."

So far, only two U.S. cities have adopted paid sick leave laws. Since 2008, five other cities, as well as 21 states and the U.S. Congress, have considered similar bills. So far, none have passed, because organized business interests have thwarted the proposals, claiming that even the most modest benefits will harm the economy and kill jobs. That scare tactic has proven quite potent in the present climate, with employers fiercely resistant to anything that even hints at additional costs.

Are these claims correct or are the business groups crying wolf? One way to judge is to examine whether places that already have paid sick leave laws are suffering the dire consequences that corporate America warns against. A majority of the world's nations guarantee sick leave benefits, as do Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. (Similar legislation was passed in Milwaukee with 68 percent of the vote, but area business groups sued and a local court overturned it).

In 2006, San Francisco became the first American city to guarantee its citizens the right to paid time off to recuperate from illness. Business groups, spearheaded by the local Chamber of Commerce, lobbied against the ballot measure, which came on the heels of a municipal minimum wage raise and a universal health care law in the city. The business-side arguments evoked the typical "job killer" rhetoric. After voters approved the law by 61 percent, Kevin Westlye, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, told the New York Times, "There's no such thing as a free lunch on something like this," and darkly warned of rising prices and shuttered restaurants.

Four years later, these dire predictions have not come to pass. A recent study by the Drum Major Institute (DMI) shows that San Francisco's employment rate has remained stronger than in any of the five neighboring counties, including wealthy Santa Clara (Silicon Valley). Even the industries where opponents warned that the impact would be harshest - retail, hospitality, and food services - remained stronger, without exception, than their nearby counterparts.

At least 145 nations guarantee working adults some form of sick leave, including rich countries like Germany and Canada, and poorer ones like Indonesia and Senegal. Most of them allow at least one week, and over half ensuring leave of a month or more. A 2006 study in the Journal for Comparative Policy Analysis revealed that there is little, if any, connection between sick pay laws and unemployment levels. A 2009 follow up study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research shows that the duration of European sick leave laws doesn't have any discernible relation to unemployment rates either.

Studies show that paid sick leave is beneficial for employers too. Currently, businesses lose money from high turnover rates caused by illness absences and from the lowered productivity that results from sick employees spreading their germs at work. The Institute of Women's Policy Research found that if all U.S. workers were offered seven days of paid sick leave annually the result would be "a net savings of $8.1 billion a year due to increased productivity and reduced turnover."

Today, even San Francisco business owners have come around. Jim Lazarus, senior vice president of the city's Chamber of Commerce, told the Wall Street Journal that the legislation hasn't stirred up any backlash from his members. And in a June article in Business Week, former doomsayer Westlye, executive director of the restaurant industry's lobby, sounded downright enthusiastic about the bill: "[Paid sick leave] is the best public policy for the least cost. Do you want your server coughing over your food?"

Despite the success of the San Francisco law, business groups continue to use the same tired rhetoric against similar legislative proposals. From California to Connecticut, business groups cry wolf about paid sick leave, and its supposedly catastrophic economic effects.
Our nation's lawmakers would do well to ignore them. Paid sick leave would have a tangible impact on the lives of American families--and politicians. The National Opinion Research Center released a poll in June showing that 86 percent of Americans favored laws guaranteeing paid sick leave. Strong majorities of self-identified Republicans as well as Democrats supported the proposal. Most said they would be more likely to vote for politicians who backed it.

All employees should be able to take time off for their illnesses, not just those lucky enough to have the right job. As the San Francisco experience shows, we can make our economy friendlier to beleaguered workers without harming their employers.


Jake Blumgart is a researcher with the San Diego-based Center on Policy Initiatives' Cry Wolf Project funded by the Ford Foundation and the Public Welfare Foundation. His work has been published by the American Prospect, the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Stranger, and Campus Progress. A shorter version of this article was originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Follow him on Twitter.