By Elizabeth Kristen
This week, California’s “Paid Sick Days” bill cleared another hurdle in the Senate Labor Committee where it passed on a party line vote. AB 1522, by Assemblymember Gonzalez, would provide all California workers with at least three days of paid sick leave per year. The bill would also allow an employee to use leave if necessary due to domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking.
While a provision of some sick leave is an important improvement upon California law, three days per year is simply not enough. And the recent deletion of the private right of action, which would allow workers to enforce their rights in court, removes an important mechanism to make sure that workers actually are able to access their right to paid sick days. California needs to adopt a more robust paid sick leave law. Doing so is critical for public health, for workers and their families, and for California’s economy.
Many workers, especially low-wage workers, do not receive any paid time off from work for their illness. This forces them to work while sick – serving food in restaurants, providing child and elder care, and ringing up purchases as cashiers. This is bad enough for the workers themselves, but the consequences infect the economy and public health as well.
The burden to work while sick is not something that we all bear equally. Latino workers, for example, are significantly less likely to have paid sick days – only 47 percent of Latinos receive some form of paid time off, compared with 61 percent of the overall workforce. Unsurprisingly, the poorest workers also have the least access to paid sick leave. Thus, workers who can least afford to use unpaid days and who cannot afford to lose their jobs are also those least likely to have paid sick days at their disposal. Of workers paid $65,000 or more per year, more than 80% have paid sick days; by contrast, only about a quarter of workers making less than $20,000 per year reap this important benefit.
Recognizing this disproportionate burden, several forward-thinking cities have made progress towards eliminating this difficult ultimatum by adopting paid sick leave laws. The table below shows those jurisdictions, including the size of employer covered by the paid sick days law, the maximum amount of leave provided, and whether the leave is paid or unpaid. Although eligibility and the extent of benefits vary greatly, all of these jurisdictions see healthy families and healthy economies as intimately linked, not mutually exclusive.
Although cities have pioneered this protection, some states recognize that the cost or trappings of urban living serve as barriers for many workers and families. The state of Connecticut became the first state to adopt paid sick days in July 2011. Connecticut’s leave can be used for the worker’s own health, for the care of a child or a spouse, or for needs related to domestic violence or sexual assault. A recent report about this law found that offering paid sick days did not harm business. In fact, many businesses reported positive effects, including reduced employee turnover, reduced spread of illness, improved morale, and increased productivity, motivation, and loyalty. Eighteen months after the law took effect, more than 75% of employers were either “very supportive” or “somewhat supportive” of the new law.
Unfortunately in other states, the legislative trend has moved in the opposite direction. Ten states— Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin — have enacted legislation to block cities from adopting paid sick leave, and fourteen other state legislatures have seen the introduction of such legislation. In addition, Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s paid sick days bill was invalidated by a state law banning such ordinances.
Enactment of a federal law allowing workers to protect their health without sacrificing their financial or occupational wellbeing would override state laws hostile to the rights of workers. Pending national legislation—the Healthy Families Act—would provide paid sick days as well as paid safe days for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking. But, for the time being, “[t]he United States is the only country out of the 15 most competitive that doesn’t guarantee paid sick days to all workers, leaving 40 percent in the private sector without access to the leave.”
This coverage gap is not only embarrassing, it also is bad for workers and their families and undermines public health. By allowing workers to address their pressing health needs without sacrificing wages, paid sick leave would preempt the degeneration of illnesses into emergency situations. Without offering paid sick leave, workers must gamble with their health, and may suffer wage and job losses. In addition to these economic concerns, workers’ hardships often need to be offset by significant public assistance expenditures. Nor does the employer benefit by withholding paid sick leave from its employees: loss of productivity due to illness is twice as expensive to employers as absenteeism. These conclusions follow not only from common sense, but from the benefits reaped by workers and businesses across the state of Connecticut.
The rhetoric surrounding this debate is feverish, but the health of our economy and the health of our workers need not be at odds. Paid sick leave is the antidote to many social ills – from economic inefficiency to reliance upon public assistance. All stakeholders should endorse paid sick leave in order to promote a healthier economy, for employers and employees alike.
Elizabeth Kristen is the Director of the Gender Equity & LGBT Rights Program and a senior staff attorney at Legal Aid Society - Employment Law Center. Ms. Kristen began her public interest career as a Skadden Fellow at Legal Aid. Ms. Kristen graduated from University of California at Berkeley School of Law in 2001 and served as a law clerk to the Honorable James R. Browning on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. In 2012-13, she served as a Harvard law School Wasserstein Public Interest Fellow. She has been a lecturer at Berkeley Law School since 2008.