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The National Opinion Research Center (NORC) recently released a survey on paid sick days that has people talking.  The survey shows that the vast majority of Americans support legislation requiring employers to provide paid sick days.  Most people feel that paid sick days are a basic right – the same share as believe minimum wage and overtime laws are important.  And they’re right – everybody should be able to take a day off when they’re sick, or when a family member is sick, and not have to worry about losing a paycheck or losing their job.  It’s just common sense.

As the leader of the Illinois Paid Leave Coalition, which is working to pass the Healthy Workplace Act to guarantee all Illinois workers up to seven paid sick days a year, Women Employed hears opposition from employers who say we don’t need legislation because so many already provide paid sick days.

But what many don’t realize is that a lot of workers who have paid sick days can’t use them.  Employers like Walmart have been in the news lately for policies that punish workers for taking their paid sick days.  Walmart does give employees paid sick days, but if workers call in sick they get a demerit.  Too many demerits, and they can be fired.  Punitive policies like this keep many workers from taking a sick day - they just come in sick instead.

It’s one thing to read about policies like this in the paper.  It’s another to see a bad policy affect someone you love.  Last winter my sister, a nurse in a hospital intensive care unit, discovered a lump on her neck.  Doctors told her she might have thyroid cancer, and she needed immediate surgery to remove her thyroid gland.  She was scared – we all were – and she scheduled the surgery right away.

Luckily, it turned out the growth wasn’t cancerous, but on her doctor’s orders, she missed eight days of work for surgery and recovery.  In her four years at the hospital, she had accrued more than enough sick days to cover this absence.  But when she returned to work, she was told that taking those days off was a ‘performance issue,’ and they reduced her wages.

I knew policies like this existed.  I knew there were employers out there who equated taking time off with having a ‘performance issue.’ But I just couldn’t believe it was happening to my sister.  And I couldn’t believe that a hospital, of all places, would punish their employees for being sick.  It’s mind-boggling that they’d rather have their nurses come in sick to treat weak and vulnerable patients than have sick employees use the hospital policy, stay at home and take the time to recover.

My sister couldn’t believe it either.  In four years she had received nothing but positive reviews, and was highly regarded for her skills and bedside manner.  She was an asset to the hospital - the kind of nurse that gets thank you letters from patients and their families.  She couldn’t believe how she was treated by a healthcare system that should have understood her need to recover from surgery.  So she quit.  In the end, it was the hospital that lost.  They lost a great nurse and they had to spend the time and money to try to replace her.

My sister found a new, fabulous job at a hospital that pays better wages and treats their employees with care and respect.  I wish all workers could have this kind of happy ending.  But we need paid sick days legislation to make that happen.  We need a law that ensures employers cannot retaliate against employees for using paid sick days.

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