Paid Sick Leave: It’s Still a Big Deal

During the first week of August 2015, newspapers reported that the White House is drafting an executive order requiring federal contractors to provide their employees with at least seven days of paid leave per year for illness or to care for family members. The notion that workers are are flesh-and-blood human beings who sometimes get sick, sometimes need to care for family members who are sick, and often cannot absorb the loss of salary while they are sick should be pretty self-evident. And, one would assume, acknowledgment of basic human rights should be sufficient reason to require employers to provide their workers with at least some paid sick leave. Yet, within days of reports of this seemingly modest policy move, industry leaders have made it clear that they will oppose this executive order in court; that they will do their best to dilute it’s provisions; and they will do their best to ensure that it applies to as few workers as possible.

Fortunately, despite harumphing out of Washington that paid sick leave would kill job growth, interfere with the free market and turn American workers into sniveling babies, a number of states have gone ahead and passed paid sick leave ballots or legislation. I’ve re-posted here an essay on the critical importance of paid sick leave that I wrote right after the 2014 elections. 


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.

This article was originally posted on November 7, 2014

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *