The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Employers Asked to Cough Up Paid Sick Days

by Kari Lydersen

A renewed push by federal and state lawmakers offers promise to many of the 59 million workers who currently go unpaid when they have to call in sick or tend to a family emergency.

Feb. 22, 2007 – Rebecca Wolfram has been teaching adult education at a Chicago city college for almost 30 years. And for most of that time, she didn’t have a single paid sick day.

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"I’ve gone to work with over a 100 degree fever. It’s ridiculous," said Wolfram. "You drag yourself in. It’s ugly."

During recent contentious contract negotiations between the teachers’ union and colleges, paid sick days were one of the adult-education teachers’ major demands. An informal poll by the union steward found it was teachers’ Number One concern – more than paid class-preparation time or even health insurance. The college administration grudgingly agreed to two paid sick days per year.

"But we’re still told you have to really be sick," Wolfram said. "They’re afraid we might use the sick days for some other purpose even though we only have two a year."

About 59 million workers nationwide do not have paid sick days, according to a 2004 analysis by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. That means that like Wolfram, they go to work sick, coughing, nauseous and miserable – and often contagious. Eighty-six million workers cannot take a paid day off to care for a sick child or other family member, and must scramble to find friends or relatives to step in. Some people are simply forced to take off work without pay and risk being disciplined or losing their jobs.

The US is one of the only industrialized countries where a majority of workers don’t have paid sick days.

But workers may get a break if federal and state lawmakers follow through with plans to push legislation that would mandate paid sick days for public and private sector workers. According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, legislators in Wisconsin, Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, Michigan and Maryland are all expected to introduce paid sick day legislation in the coming year, as are municipal authorities in the District of Columbia and Madison, Wisconsin.

In January, San Francisco became the first and only municipality in the country to implement a law requiring all employers to provide one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked, with a five- or nine-day cap per year, depending on the size of the workplace.

On the federal level, Senator Edward Kennedy (D–Massachusetts) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D–Connecticut) plan to reintroduce legislation known as the Healthy Families Act. The bill would direct employers with at least fifteen workers to provide seven paid sick days for full-timers and a prorated amount for part-timers.

Though similar legislation failed to pass last year, politicians and organizations predict the bill will succeed this year thanks to increasing public support and a new Democratic majority in Congress.

The US is one of the only industrialized countries where a majority of workers don’t have paid sick days. A 2004 study by Harvard University’s Project on Global Working Families found that 139 countries mandate paid sick leave for short- or long-term illnesses, and 117 countries guarantee at least a week of sick leave per year.

Only one in six part-time workers has paid sick days.

Jodie Levin-Epstein, deputy director of the Center for Law and Social Policy, told The NewStandard that the recent success of state minimum wage bills has helped focus public attention on the plight of US workers in general, including the lack of paid sick days.

The Kaiser Family Foundation reported in 2003 that the dearth of paid sick days affects working women most severely. The Foundation found that 49 percent of working mothers report they must miss work when a child is sick with a common illness, compared to 30 percent of men, and half of working mothers do not get paid time off spent caring for a sick child.

Part-time workers may be especially hard hit. Only one in six part-time workers has paid sick days, according to a 2004 study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Industry groups opposing mandatory paid sick days warn of the financial risk to smaller employers and the economic effect of lost productivity when employees call in sick. They also point out that in many countries, the government picks up the tab for sick pay. 

But advocates for paid sick leave say "presenteeism" – employees coming to work when they are ill – also takes a toll productivity. Kate Kahan, director of work and family programs for the National Partnership for Women & Families, said, "When people are fired for being sick – which does happen – the cost of replacing that worker is incredibly high."

Kahan added that "there’s a big public-health benefit to paid sick leave" when contagious workers who handle food or other public goods stay home.    

In addition to paid sick days, workers’ rights and public-health activists are pushing for wider guaranteed access to medical leave for longer-term absences due to serious health conditions, or to care for ailing family members. Medical leave can also be used for ongoing periodic absences due to a chronic condition. Currently, about 76 million workers are guaranteed access to unpaid medical leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), legislation passed in 1993 that applies to workplaces with 50 employees or more.  

The FMLA has long been a sore point with industry trade groups that complain the definition of what merits leave is overly vague and that employees abuse the statute to take vacations or recover from hangovers. Among other things, opponents of the law say the definition of a "serious health condition" is too broad and is often used to cover a common cold or minor back pain.

In response to complaints from industry groups, the federal government recently accepted public comments on the FMLA, with the possibility that the Department of Labor will revise how the Act is interpreted. Jason Straczewski, director of human resources policy for the National Association of Manufacturers, told TNS the industry group submitted a comment "to protect and strengthen the benefits the Act provides."

"Most of the information we’ve gathered indicates there is trouble in implementing intermittent leave and medical leave," Straczewski said, referring to leave taken on a regular basis to deal with chronic health problems. "It sometimes leads to absenteeism and abuses in the workplace. That leads to orders not filled on time, customer complaints, loss of morale, and other workers having to pull double duty to make up for their colleagues."

He said the FMLA "creates a standard where someone can just call in and say, ‘I’m using my FMLA leave today.’" Instead, he said, "intermittent leave should just be for more-serious things like dialysis, chemotherapy or prenatal care."

Kahan of the National Partnership for Women & Families said it would be unethical for the FMLA to be changed to punish everyone because a relatively small number of people take improper advantage of it. "Complaints about the abuse of the FMLA are hard to take seriously," she said. "People really need leave when their kids or parents get sick. We shouldn’t change how a law works to catch a few abusers."

Meanwhile proponents of the FMLA point out that millions of workers covered by the Act can’t afford to take unpaid leave. In January, Senator Ted Stevens (R–Alaska) introduced the Family Leave Act, which would provide paid leave for federal employees after the birth of a child and to take children to medical appointments. 

Public-health, workers’ and women’s advocates stress that paid sick days and paid medical leave are two separate and very critical needs for healthy families and a healthy workforce.

"People need more security in their lives, and knowing they can take a certain number of paid sick days is a big part of that," Kahan said. "Our workforce has changed so much, with two parents in the workforce and older parents, but our workplaces haven’t changed to keep up."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

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Kari Lydersen is a contributing journalist.

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