Paid Sick Days: Everyone But Us
Earlier this year, the nation of Kuwait passed a law ensuring paid leave to all workers in their country, even in their first year of work. In passing this basic, common-sense legislation, Kuwait joined a community of 145 other nations – including 19 of the top 20 most economically competitive countries in the world – that guarantee some form of paid sick days to workers. Who is left out of this group? The United States of America.
Just as we share with Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland the dubious distinction of being the only countries to the world to offer women no paid maternity leave whatsoever, we in America have no provisions guaranteeing that workers can take a single paid day off when they or a family member or loved one are sick. (The Family and Medical Leave Act, which covers 60 percent of the workforce, offers only unpaid leave.)
As a result, 57 million Americans cannot take time off work. In fact, almost half of all private sector workers – and 79 percent of low-income workers – do not have a single paid day off. According to a 2008 study, one in six workers report that they or a family member had been fired, suspended, punished or threatened with firing for taking time off due to personal illness or to care for a relative. It is a choice no one should be faced with: go to work and send your sick child to school, or stay at home to care for her and risk losing your job.
The numbers are particularly troubling in the food service industry, where only 15 percent of workers have paid sick days. Suffice to say, food service is not an industry where we want employees showing up to work with contagious viral infections.
Speaking of which, paid sick days has always been a good, common sense idea, but, in light of the H1N1 epidemic we experienced last year, it has also become a necessary one. From its very first diagnosis, we saw countless public health officials, and even the President, take to the airwaves to ask Americans to follow a simple guideline to prevent widespread H1N1 infection: If you get sick, stay home from work or school and limit contact with others to keep from infecting them. And yet, following this critical advice is virtually impossible for far too many right now, as I am sure any number of working moms out there can tell you.
We dodged a bullet with H1N1, but we may not be as lucky next time. In fact, the convergence of a deadly contagion like H1N1 spreading in this economic climate could well be catastrophic. Right when more and more workers are feeling economically vulnerable and afraid to even miss one workday, we could face an extraordinarily serious health risk that spreads much more quickly if the sick do not stay at home.
And the very important public health implications aside, passing paid sick days legislation makes simple economic sense. In fact, “presenteeism” – the practice of coming to work sick – costs our national economy more than it would cost to provide paid sick days. According to one study, $180 billion is lost annually, meaning that, right now, employers pay an average of $255 per employee per year in lost productivity, more than the cost of absenteeism and medical and disability benefits. So, the argument that we cannot afford to institute paid sick days right now does not hold water – In fact, the opposite is true: passing paid sick days would boost productivity.
Six years ago, the late Senator Kennedy and I first introduced the Healthy Families Act. Our bill requires employers with fifteen or more workers to provide seven days of paid sick leave annually for their own medical needs or to care for a family member. We reintroduced the bill a year ago, and have almost 120 co-sponsors in the House and 21 co-sponsors in the Senate. This legislation is also supported by a broad coalition of over 130 state and national groups, including the National Partnership for Women and Families, the American Association of University Women, Business & Professional Women, and this organization, Moms Rising.
To my mind, this is a basic question of right and wrong. Passing the Healthy Families Act would do right by American workers and families, and finally give them the freedom to care for themselves or a sick relative when they need to. But, even if you do not agree that this is a question of basic American values, paid leave would protect the public health by helping to stop the spread of dangerous viral infections like H1N1. It would save employers money, encourage productivity, and help boost the economy. And it will stop working moms all over the country from having to choose between helping their children or keeping their jobs.
It is time to join the rest of the world, and afford our workers the basic protections that almost every other nation on this earth already enjoys. If Kuwait can do it, so can we.