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The Florida House of Representatives passed a bill earlier this month prohibiting local sick leave ordinances, even when they have wide popular support.  The Florida Senate is currently considering similar legislation.

Two Florida Republicans introduced these anti-sick leave bills after an Orange County ballot initiative gained more than 50,000 signatures last fall. The measure would require employers to allow workers to earn up to 56 hours of paid sick leave per year, one hour for every 37 hours worked.

Republican lawmakers say they must deny voters the right to decide whether to institute paid sick leave in their counties because they believe it would put some businesses at a competitive disadvantage.

The citizens who sought the referendum on paid sick leave believe most people do not want to drop their kids off at a daycare where the child care providers are sick.  They believe most people don’t want to eat food prepared by sick cooks or go to vacation destinations staffed by sick hospitality workers.

The referendum supporters know that without paid leave, many workers in these low-paid professions have no choice. They must work when ill.

This is why proponents of mandatory paid sick leave, including health professionals, labor unions and even some business owners, view sick leave as a human rights issue with significant public safety implications.

Nearly 40 percent of private sector employees do not have access to paid sick leave, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic.  The majority of these are low-wage workers in the service sector, including retail, food service and child care workers.

Workers understand that handling food or interacting with people when they’re sick endangers the public, but because they are paid so little—often less than $10 an hour—most cannot afford to take a day off.

More than half of all workers who directly handle other peoples’ food, for example, including pickers, processors, vendors, cooks and servers, reported working at least three days while sick in the past year, according to a survey by the Food Chain Workers Alliance.

“Like health code standards for restaurants, or immunization requirements for school children, this is an area that affects all of us and requires a minimum standard,” said the group Everybody Benefits in a statement in support a similar earned sick day campaign in Portland, Ore.

The public broadly supports more comprehensive sick leave policies.  Ninety-two percent of consumers reported that it was important to them that cooks and servers not work when sick, according to survey results the National Consumers League released in January.

In the past five years successful measures like the one currently being debated in Florida have passed in San Francisco, Washington D.C., Seattle, and Portland, Ore.  New York City is poised to join them. In 2012, Connecticut became the first state to require employers to offer paid sick leave. 

In 2008, Milwaukee passed a popular sick leave ordinance, but it was invalidated in 2011 when Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed a statewide ban on these types of laws.  Walker claimed overriding the local ordinance was about job creation.

A measure in Denver also failed after the National Restaurant Association, a Washington based lobby, and other out-of-state interest groups poured hundreds of thousand dollars into blocking the local initiative.

Large employers in the Orange County area like Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden and Red Lobster, are similarly lobbying to kill the Orange County measure.  The Florida Chamber of Commerce has made banning sick leave ordinances one of its top legislative priorities.

Andy Shallal, who owns several restaurants in the Washington D.C. area, is a vocal supporter of sick leave requirements.

He believes that businesses oppose laws requiring them to offer sick leave because it might cut into their profits, even though he has not found this to be the case.  In discussing the sick leave policy at his restaurants with the National Consumers League, he said that the cost amounts to less than 1% of his total payroll expenses.

Another common fear is that workers will abuse sick leave, but a report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research examining the impacts of the San Francisco ordinance found after five years, there is little evidence of abuse.  On the contrary, the study found that a quarter of all workers hadn’t taken a single sick day in the previous year.

The study found that paid sick leave helped workers and their families, while improving public health.

Providing workers with paid sick leave “is the kind of thing that just makes sense,” said Shallal.

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