feature image via Cody Glenn, The Daily Journal
Francesca, a woman I have come to know during the past seven years, has tried hard to rebuild her life after fleeing an abusive marriage, overuse of pain medication, homelessness and a stint in prison. She popped into my mind this week when I read an article about Maria Fernandez who died of exhaustion. Working more than eighty hours a week at minimum wage jobs in fast food chains, she sat down in her car to take a nap between shifts. A gas container tipped over and Maria never woke up.
With a prison record, Francesca can barely find one job, let alone the four that Maria juggled. But she certainly understands what Maria was going through at Dunkin Donuts. A couple of years ago Francesca was hired at a Boston-area Dunkin Donuts where she worked erratic, long shifts at the whim of the manager. She rarely knew ahead of time when she’d be called into work, or for how many hours. After a few weeks she found herself in pain — bone spurs in her foot had been exacerbated by the long hours standing on her feet. Her manager told her that if she took off time or reduced her shifts he would let her go. Fortunate to be a recipient of Massachusetts’ generous health insurance coverage, she went to her doctor who gave her an orthopedic boot to wear at work. Unfortunately, the boot caused her to trip at work and she was fired on the spot.
Paid Sick Leave
In a mid-term election cycle that resulted in few reasons for young, sick, poor or vulnerable Americans to look forward to positive changes in their circumstances, there was at least one bright light. Massachusetts voters (yes, the same folks who voted in Republican Charlie Baker for governor) approved a ballot measure in support of the country’s most robust requirements for providing paid sick leave to workers. The new Massachusetts law entitles people to earn up to 40 hours of paid sick time each year if they work for businesses with 11 or more employees; staff at smaller companies would earn 40 hours of annual unpaid sick time. Sick leave could also be used to care for a sick child, spouse, or parent.
With that vote, Massachusetts joins two other states (California and Connecticut) and about a dozen municipalities. Paid sick time questions were also on the ballot in three cities in this election, and passed in all three.
It’s not hard to argue that paid sick leave is good for everyone, not just for Francesca or Maria. For parents, it means being able to take off from work to care for sick children. For consumers, it means less likelihood that the people serving your meal, ringing up your groceries or checking you in at the doctors’ office will spread germs by coming into work sick. It also means less likelihood that someone doped up on Nyquil will be at the wheel of a car or truck. Or that construction workers, bank tellers and security guards will make the kinds of illness-induced errors that can lead to roofs collapsing, money going astray, or weapons making it into public institutions. But it doesn’t end there. Paid sick leave is also good for employers: Productivity and profitability go down when workers are forced to come to work when they are sick. One study on the impact of illness on productivity estimates that businesses lose twice as much money to workers who show up at work while sick then when workers stay home due to an illness.
Tip of the Iceberg
But there are more macro reasons that the four sick leave ballot votes are a cause for elation. On a deep level, paid sick leave pushes back against a corporate culture in which workers, and especially low-wage workers, increasingly are treated as replaceable cogs in the money-making wheel.
In the best of all possible worlds (actually, in the world that the labor movements of the early twentieth century fought hard to create), employers and employees would collaborate in creating a safe working environment, a first rate product, and profits for the company and livable wages and solid benefits for the employees. In that world, the health and safety of the employee would be seen as serving not only the moral but also the financial good of the employer. Employers would understand that they could not prosper without the dedicated services of their employees. They would nurture that dedication through an occupational culture of respect and fairness, and they would do everything in their power to hold onto their employees’ services. These employers would know that it is in everyone’s interest to ensure that the workplace environment minimizes the risk of injury and thus minimizes lost workdays, and that in the case of accidents or illness employees receive the best possible medical treatment so that their return to work is expedited. These employers would also respect that their workers have lives outside of the factory or store or restaurant or office. They would understand that workers, like themselves, are also human beings living in the frail bodies. And workers, like employers, are embedded in the family and social networks of mutual obligation that provide the truest safety net when we – as all humans do – are born, give birth, become ill, age and die.
This scenario is rooted in an idealized business ethos of respect that recognizes the mutual dependency between owners and workers, and it is actualized through specific health and safety programs that employers support on both moral and business principles. Employers know that it is economically inefficient to deal with frequent turnover in their workforce so they want employees to work for them for a good long time, to improve their job skills, and to develop company loyalty. To some extent, it is irrelevant whether this goal is driven by pure altruism, by the profit motive, or by a combination of the two. Whatever the motive, in our ideal world, it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to link health care to employment or for workers to depend upon their employers to compensate them for work related injuries.
Unfortunately for American workers, however, that ideal world does not exist (at least, not outside of occasional nostalgic TV sitcoms). The current American work world is highly mobile and transient; many of the largest employers in, for example, the fast food industry, seek ways to structure employment so that workers are easily interchangeable; multi-national conglomerates neither feel loyalty towards their employees nor expect their employees to feel loyalty towards them; small businesses go under faster than they get started; and manufacturing and other business associations spend billions of dollars lobbying Congress and state legislatures to limit laws requiring and enforcing workplace safety standards.
In the real world, employees and employers often experience their relationship as more adversarial than cooperative. Rather than collaborate on a mutually beneficial social contract that balances the well being of workers with profits and productivity, employers increasingly have chosen to pursue immediate profits. Employers frequently view living wages, strong worker benefits, and safe working conditions as coming at the expense of profits. Investing in the health of employees often is seen as superfluous in an economic climate in which the growing caste of the working poor can be hired on a temporary or contingent basis, and in which plants and factories can be moved to South America or Asia — places where employers need not bother with things like paid sick leave, health insurance or worker’s compensation, labor unions, environmental regulations, or child labor laws.
Successfully passing paid sick leave ballot questions in a few states and cities cannot reverse decades of policies that created the work environments in which Francesca and Maria live, and die. But it is a meaningful move pragmatically for hundreds of thousands of people, and a meaningful move symbolically in terms of collective recognition of basic human rights of workers.
So, as I write this I can, for a few minutes at least, feel a bit better about the 2014 mid-term elections. That is, until I remember that Republican leaders have made clear that one of their highest priorities will be the repeal of Obamacare, which while far too watered down for my own tastes, does require employers of large companies to offer health insurance to their employees.
You can read more about these issues in Uninsured in America: Life and Death in the Land of Opportunity by Susan Sered and Rushika Fernandopulle.