Paid sick leave is sometimes described as a conflict between employers and employees, and it’s often framed as worker greed versus small business owner just trying to get by. But this issue is bigger than workers and employers. It’s also about families, colleagues and customers.
Families need to be taken care of. If a primary caregiver is sick, going to work will prevent them from recovering as quickly as they could. If a child is sick, and cannot go to school, someone needs to care for them. Parents are left with few choices in those situations – if they are lucky, they have someone else who will step in to care for their sick child, putting their own health at risk by being exposed to illness. But otherwise, parents need to stay home to care for their families.
And it’s not just children who need care - oftentimes a worker is responsible for the health and well-being of an elderly parent. There’s little choice in these cases, and when a worker is worried about losing their job if they need to stay home for family caregiving responsibilities, the decisions become desperate. While a child cannot be left alone, an unpaid sick day or the risk of losing a job means losing a means of supporting a family. No one should be put in this position due to insufficient labor protections or political debates.
Further, when sick workers go to work, not only are they compromising their own health and recovery, but they are also putting others with whom they come into contact at risk of getting sick as well. In an office, this is a problem with shared water coolers, bathrooms and meeting space. But in a service environment, like a coffee shop, restaurant or grocery store, a cough or sneeze puts not just colleagues but customers by the hundreds or thousands at risk too.
No one is suggesting that workers be allowed unlimited paid sick leave, but we need to work towards making decisions that are better in line with the interests of worker-employer relations and public heath. We see policies at work in other countries, and it could work in the US as well.
Congress should act to pass legislation that would guarantee workers up to seven paid sick days per year to recover from short-term illness, to care for a sick family member or child, for routine medical care or to seek assistance related to domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. A basic workplace standard of paid sick days would help prevent women and men from being forced to choose between their own health or the health of their family—and their paychecks or even their jobs.
Paid sick leave is about you, me, all of us. If you’re sick, I want you to get well – not just for you, but for me too! Every sneeze puts others at risk, and as a good employee, I don’t want to further drain productivity by getting my colleagues sick, nor do I want to put customers at risk. But I also want to feel better, and soon. Everyone is served best if we’re all healthy at work, and if it means taking a few days to get better, it’s in the best interests of workers, families, colleagues, customers and employers too.