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The public-health case for mandatory paid-sick-leave laws

Paid sick leave legislation such as the Seattle City Council is considering makes sense, because when people work sick they infect others. Seattle's politicians should listen to the public and enact a mandate.

Courtesy of state Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board

Courtesy of state Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board

I work at a place where we don't have paid sick days. We sell food and medicines. We could be a grocery store, a pharmacy, a convenience store, even a gas station. It does not really matter. It is the same story pretty much wherever you go. We are sick at work. That is one of the dirty secrets of workplaces across America. People are coming to work sick because they either can't afford to miss a day's pay or fear the discipline they might get if they were to call in sick.

But the times are changing. San Francisco and Washington, D.C., have passed a version of paid sick days. The people of Milwaukee passed a law there. At the beginning of this month, Connecticut became the first state in the nation to pass a paid sick days law. And then on June 16 the city council in Philadelphia passed paid sick days. The momentum is clear. People want paid sick days. And politicians are starting to respond to that overwhelming public support.

We need paid sick days here in Seattle. Over 190,000 workers here do not have it. That means every day — today as you read this commentary — there is some worker in a Seattle restaurant sick. Some worker in a Seattle grocery store sick. There may even be a worker in a doctor's office or clinic sick. There are kids in school sick and not going home because a parent can't go and pick them up because they don't have a paid sick day and can't leave work. All this is messed up and needs to change.

Why are paid sick days a good idea? Paid sick days allow for workers to stay at home when they are sick, get well and then come back to work healthy. This helps make food safer, helps prevent the spread of disease, and helps make our communities healthier.

The Seattle City Council has begun to consider a paid sick days proposal for the people who work in our city. I think that is a good idea. I have seen workers come in sick. I have gone into work sick myself. We are faced by an awful choice. Come to work sick or lose a day, or two days of pay. How many of you would take 20 to 40 percent pay cut in a week because you were sick and had to miss a day or two? Most people are not sick too often. But we all get sick sometime. And paid sick days provides that basic protection so that when we do get sick, we can get rest, get better and get back to work without a fear spreading illness, or not being able to make rent or getting in trouble with our boss.

It is time for our elected officials to get this moving, get this passed, and make this change into law. After all, who wants to think about some worker being sick when they get their latte, or have a sandwich, or go to the doctor's, or get their groceries? No one. But until paid sick days becomes the law in this city, we will continue to have that happen. Let's get rid of that dirty little secret.

Keep the momentum going in this country. When we pass this law, it will be in the way Seattle wants it, not some other city. But the bigger story will be about another 200,000 workers in the country having paid sick days. About another city that has safer food. About another city that is better prepared to help prevent the spread of disease. About another city where local neighborhoods and schools and workplaces are all more healthy. That's a city I want to live in.

Tasha West-Baker is a Seattle area grocery store worker.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Jun 28, 8:02 a.m. Inappropriate

And who is supposed to pay for your sick days? Your employer? Your employer's customers? Show me a way to make this work and I'll support it wholeheartedly. But please don't put the burden foryour safety net on the owners of small businesses.

Posted Tue, Jun 28, 10:12 a.m. Inappropriate

The mayor and the author of this article would have us believe that paid sick leave would allieviate a public health threat. Yet no one has provided evidence that there is an health epidemic of some sort (the plague, for example?) that would justify this type of government intervention, or infringement, on the contract between an employer and its employees. I beleive this type of mandate should only be used in extreme cases, when the health and lives of the entire population is at risk. Otherwise, leave the negotiation about sick leave between the employees and employer, who are in the best position to tailor a program that suites them both.

smallbiz

Posted Tue, Jun 28, 11:06 a.m. Inappropriate

Just curious... if the City of Seattle can require employers to provide paid sick leave, what else can they require? Could they require employers within city limits to only hire employ people who, also, reside in city limits? This could really help the live close/transit effort.

BlueLight

Posted Tue, Jun 28, 11:30 a.m. Inappropriate

There is a train of discussion and thought that one of the reasons everybody gets sick now is lack of exposure to germs. If we are exposed in a moderate manner, i.e.: somebody coughs on us, we are exposed and build immunity. I went to grade school in the ‘50s, colds and flu swept through the school every year for about a week. Then, nobody got sick anymore. The thought was; we had built immunity. We also had several years when all fifty of us in class never missed a day. I realize that this is all anecdotal, but I do know that I am not alone in my experience.

I work in Seattle perhaps a week at a time, then I am away for a month and them back for a few days. How will people like me be addressed? There are too many open questions left with this proposal.

Posted Tue, Jun 28, 2:54 p.m. Inappropriate

@Ronald Holden

From my point of view, your comment seems to have overlooked the point of this article. The author, like a lot of other folks working low-wage service, food and hospitality jobs, can't afford to take a day off work when she is sick. Sure, that's a problem for her, her kids, her rent payment, etc. But it's also a problem for you, me and other people who love, work, shop and eat in Seattle - and are served by people like Tasha.

How would it work? As a customer, coworker, and resident of Seattle I'm happy to pay a bit extra for my meal, my produce and other goods to ensure people aren't working sick where I'm being served. And I bet if you polled your readership on that question, you'd find the majority probably agree.

Making sure people aren't working sick should be a responsibility of both employees and employers alike. Employees shouldn't work sick and employers should give them the tools and flexibility to be sure they don't. Clearly people who have no other choice work sick. That's the point of paid sick days.

Paid sick days will help keep sick people off city buses, away from food, and away from other kids in school. Oh, and didn't you see the list of 20+ small business that support the idea? http://seattlehealthyworkforce.org/our-proposal/supporting-businesses/

Posted Tue, Jun 28, 7:22 p.m. Inappropriate

Seattlelifer, in the 50s people didn't go out to eat as often; people didn't do ANYTHING outside their homes as often. Most people work now; then most women didn't work. There are many more opportunities to be exposed to sick people now. Harkening back to 60 years ago doesn't really work. You ask how will people like you be addressed? You will have sick leave. How else? It's not going to be based on how many days of the month you work in Seattle; it will be based on employers who do business in Seattle.

BlueLight, do you expect all legislation on anything to be stopped because you're afraid of some kind of slippery slope? That excuse has been used against every single social advancement in modern civilization, including civil rights and giving women the vote. It's no more logical or moral than it ever has been.

sarah90

Posted Tue, Jun 28, 9:47 p.m. Inappropriate

Sarah 90,

If I am only employed in Seattle 20 days out of 365 will that mean that I will have sick leave only those 20 days? The remainder will be normal no sick leave? How will an employer calculate that? If a person has a job that is within the Seattle City limits only, I can understand the plan. How about a truck driver that has a home office in Seattle yet never works in Seattle at all? With the exception of restaurants and groceries as indicated above and other similar jobs, I can see more employers doing what everyone else is doing, moving to Sumner, just across the county line. I personally have no sick leave, no paid vacation, I get paid if I show up to work. I like it that way, I have more freedom than those who are beholden to their employer for the goodies. My wife works at Boeing, she has sick leave, but she cannot use it because if she misses a day of work due to sickness, her workload becomes astronomical due to her not being available. Get sick too often will result in being the first let go when things slow down. It is a golden handcuff that make you a slave to the employer. Sorry for the rant..

Posted Wed, Jun 29, 8:10 a.m. Inappropriate

The law may say that your employer has to provide sick leave, but the reality is that you may not have an employer if he or she can't afford to stay in business in Seattle.

talisker

Posted Wed, Jun 29, 2:13 p.m. Inappropriate

Everyone who argues that paid sick days will put small businesses out of business are just blowing hot air, to be blunt. The fact is that small businesses througout the world have to pay for sick days, everywhere from Japan to Norway, and small businesses thrive throughout the world as well. If someone could make a case that American small business is vivacious specifically because it doesn't have to pay for sick days or health insurance or whatever, that would be another story. But that case can't be made, even remotely. In fact, happy employees make for higher-quality service and products, and paid sick days are one part of what makes employees happy.

I do have one question about the paid sick day thing: how does the city anticipate one-person operations (sole proprietorships with no employees) to deal with sick days? The way the provisions are written now, it seems like one-person operations (which are the *real* incubators of business innovation in Seattle) aren't specifically included or excluded under the proposal.

smacgry

Posted Fri, Jul 1, 10:41 a.m. Inappropriate

@smacgry, how would it work for sole proprietorships anyway, since in such cases one is both the employer and the employee?

Posted Sat, Jul 2, 3:27 p.m. Inappropriate

Back to @OyezOyezOyez for a second. In most businesses, customers outnumber employees. A customer can come into a business, spread germs everywhere, infect all who come after, and go home free as a bird. The factthat 20-some businesses (out of tens of thousands) support the notion of paid sick leave misses the point entirely. Good health is a desirable goal of public policy, which is why it must apply to ALL members of the public. Mandating that a certain class of people (in this case, businesses licensed in Seattle) bear the exclusive burden of payment for this goal is discriminatory.

If you want paid sick leave, let's offer it to everyone. And let's make sure everyone pays for it, not just a small class of put-upon businesses. It's not impossible. Social Security's not impossible. Medicare's not impossible. Public schools aren't impossible. If there's a clear public good to come of this, and if a category of people (private-sector employees who don't have health insurance) is to benefit, then it's up to government to pay the bill. That's what government is for, for heaven's sake!

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