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Madeline Shepherd's picture

The year after I graduated from college I waited tables and worked in retail, just like my parents always wanted. Kidding! Truth be told, I had always envisioned going to law school but hesitated once it came time to send in a deposit. I hadn’t given much thought to the other options I had, and the commitment of so much time and money made me think twice. So after graduating Phi Beta Kappa, I donned an apron and slip-resistant shoes and got down to work.

I learned a great deal over the next few months working at a restaurant. My coworkers had mostly grown up in the area and still carried their high school rivalries. Some had gone to college and were waiting tables to subsidize their income from another job; others bounced from cook line to cook line in the area’s restaurant district and talked about going back to school. All of them were used to hardship, and faced it on a daily basis as they balanced taking care of family members, paying their bills, and seizing every opportunity to work a shift at our restaurant.

And naturally, these priorities at times conflicted. A babysitter fell through, someone’s mother got sick, or more frequently, something contagious made its way around the wait staff. But for better or worse, you were hard pressed to convince a server to go home. Calling out sick or leaving a shift early didn’t just mean you lost out on that night’s tips – it also stuck with you when the next week’s schedule came out, and sometimes the week after that. Working your shift wasn’t just about waiting tables and collecting tips. It was also about being part of the team on the floor that night, and missing a shift because you were sick was interpreted as a sign you were unreliable. And our shifts were nothing to sneeze at (literally). One nighttime shift at the height of tourist season could result in $250 in tips, and was often the only time you worked for several days in a row.

Federal legislation to provide paid sick days would help address this issue, by putting regulations on the books that acknowledge waiting tables doesn’t exclude you from life’s unforeseen circumstances. We’re still human. We need time away from our job to take care of ourselves and our families, and we shouldn’t be punished for it. And when we are, everyone suffers. For example, adults without paid sick days are 1.5 times more likely than those with paid sick days to report going to work with a contagious illness — and many adults at risk for doing so work in restaurants and hotels. The benefits of ensuring paid sick days extend beyond public health to business expenses. Paid sick days reduce employee turnover, increase the productivity of the workforce, and allow working parents to balance their families and careers in a manner that supports their health, well-being, and family economic security.

There are myriad reasons why paid sick days make sense, and help both businesses and workers. Given the lagging pace of our economy, it’s more important than ever to give workers the opportunity to stay home if necessary to take care of themselves or a family member without worrying that their job may be in jeopardy. We owe it to the workforce, to the next person who serves your food, and to public health in general, to pass legislation that includes paid sick days.

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