Paid sick leave in Seattle: study shows the need

During another debate, about banning smoking in restaurants, a study found surprisingly high rates of hospitality workers on the job with pain or illness, especially among women. The results have meaning for the sick-leave discussion.

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Nick Licata

During another debate, about banning smoking in restaurants, a study found surprisingly high rates of hospitality workers on the job with pain or illness, especially among women. The results have meaning for the sick-leave discussion.

City officials are hearing from at least one opponent of paid sick leave who has seized on the slim nature of the data about sick workers transmitting illness on the job. Opponents probably should focus on this issue, since it is the weakest of the public health arguments in favor of the Seattle City Council measure that would mandate paid sick leave for workers, especially those in bars and restaurants.

A much better argument is that those workers need paid sick leave for the same reasons all of the rest of us need it: working while sick or injured can makes the underlying condition worse. And it it can end up costing everyone more money by putting sick workers into our publicly financed safety net. An article I co-wrote a while back about a study conducted of local bar and restaurant workers shows that even the best protected and represented hospitality workers suffer most from work related illness. And of those workers, women suffer more from work related illness and injury.

The study was conducted when I managed the tobacco prevention program at Public Health-Seattle & King County. I was concerned that we didn’t have enough local data about worker exposure to secondhand smoke. The local union representing workers, Hotel Employees Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 8, wasn’t sure about supporting the smoking ban. Their concern was that banning smoking might hurt their workers' paychecks. And they honestly didn’t know what their workers thought of the measure.

We decided to collect some data and get some answers about workers’ thoughts about secondhand smoke and their exposure to it, but we also asked more. In general, how was their work affecting their health, safety, and wellbeing?

Almost half, 43 percent, of the workers reported work-related pain in the year previous to the study. A large majority of workers, 81 percent, said that the pain began after starting their current job, and two-thirds to three-quarters of workers with pain had to see a doctor about the pain. Statistical analysis of who was suffering the most found that work-related pain in the current job was related to being female. Women workers worked the hardest and experienced the greatest impacts on their health.

Housekeeping staff reported the most time off from work due to pain, with 49 percent having to call in sick. About 70 percent of kitchen workers reported pain to their supervisor, about 30 percent of kitchen workers reported missing one or more days of work in the past year due to work-related injury or illness.

The workers we studied actually had sick leave because they have a union. Most workers in the hospitality industry don’t have the benefit of UNITE HERE representation; they’re on their own.

More disturbing than that, was the disproportionality we found, with women being a lot more likely to suffer from the nature of the work. If you stayed at a non-union hotel last night, it’s likely it was cleaned by a worker much like the women in our study. But she may or may not have sick leave when she feels pain from repetitive stress or from exposure to cleaning chemicals or the garbage we leave behind in the room. What does she do if she can’t call in sick? She has to keep working. She’ll empty your trash, make your bed, and clean your toilet even though she’s sick or in pain.

Those workers need more than just the Republican health care plan: “don’t get sick!” Many hospitality workers do the work that most of us couldn’t and wouldn’t do. Is it too much to ask that these workers — largely women — get a few days of sick leave to recuperate from illness and physical stress?

Sick workers who keep working wind up in the emergency room and we pay for that. Workers who get sick and stay sick mean turnover, and that costs employers. And when workers get sick and stay sick they can’t move ahead economically, which means a permanent underclass of workers who work but don’t contribute more to the tax base and cost more in the long run.

I’ve already suggested that we ought not to simply mandate such a proposal. There are smart ways to require sick leave, including the creation of a bank of leave that workers, employers, customers, and the city could contribute to. I understand the idea that businesses, particularly small ones, can’t afford to pay workers who are at home sick. But we can figure this out and create a pilot that is self-sustaining.

There has been the usual talk of paid-sick leave being part of the "nanny state," a discussion I'm familiar with from the smoking ban debate (when I was pretty much the poster child of the nanny state). Yes, Seattle City Council and Chamber of Commerce, the nannies, and a lot of other women workers, are watching. Will you implement a solution to improve worker health and safety without putting anyone out of business? You can and you should, because, in this case, we can afford to be compassionate to both small businesses and working women.


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