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Paid sick days soon to be mandatory?

December 11, 2006

This post came from the merger of two seemingly-unrelated stories.

E. Coli outbreak in N.J., Pa. (AP)First story: Select Taco Bell restaurants in New Jersey and Pennsylvania are closed due to an outbreak of E. Coli bacteria illnesses. A similar scare did severe damage to the former Chi-Chi’s chain of Mexican restaurants last year.

It’s suspected that scallions (or green onions) are the culprit, which were grown in southern California, home of the tainted spinach scare this past summer. Yikes!

Which made me wonder, do these people that got sick from the bad food have sick days at work?

This leads us to…

Second story: A recent Washington Post story examines the benefit of paid days of sick leave in American businesses. From Amy Joyce’s article:

For many, taking a sick day requires little thought. But by most estimates, nearly half of all private-sector workers in the United States do not have a single day of paid sick leave. And more do not have a paid day off that can be used to care for a sick child. Low-wage workers are hit the hardest, with three of every four lacking any paid sick leave. They also usually have no health-care coverage and work a full-time or more than full-time schedule of piecemeal, part-time jobs, making paid sick leave even more unlikely.

When workers without sick leave get a virus or an injury, they have to decide if they can take an unpaid day off and still make the rent. If not, they often return to their jobs as security guards, cooks, waitresses and cashiers — decreasing their productivity and possibly getting others sick. Paid sick days can reduce turnover, cut down on health-care costs (although most companies that don’t provide paid sick leave also don’t provide health-care coverage), and increase productivity and morale.

There was movement on the paid-sick-day front last month. More than 60 percent of voters in San Francisco approved a ballot measure that would require all businesses with fewer than 10 workers to give employees up to 40 hours of paid sick leave a year; for larger employers, up to 72 hours. At every company, an employee will accrue one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, so both part-time and full-time workers would be covered.

It probably won’t end with San Francisco. There is a push to get similar measures in front of decision-makers in other cities and states in the coming year. …

A 2004 Harvard University study reported that 139 countries provide paid leave for short- or long-term illnesses. And 117 of those nations guarantee workers a week or more of paid sick days per year.

At least 37 countries have policies guaranteeing parents some type of paid leave when their children are ill. The United States does not.

So, the link is obvious: Don’t eat at Taco Bell if you don’t have sick days. (I’m just kidding, of course)

I’ve been lucky in my professional life to be employed in positions that provided sick leave when it’s truly needed. I get seriously sick about twice a year with bronchitis (thanks to severe seasonal allergies) and with a doctor’s note, I can be excused.

I don’t abuse the privilege by playing hooky, and it’s there when I need it. It’s greatly appreciated by me and my co-workers, who don’t have to hear me hack and cough, all the while wondering if I have just given them the bird flu. Though, I would probably blog the experience from home on my death bed…

Then, recently, I was in a position where I was doing temp work, and had no paid sick leave. If I was ill, I had the option of calling off sick, but I’d lose a day’s pay. No personal days or vacation days to use either.

That really put into perspective many workers face each day, debating what’s more important: health or paying the rent/bills/groceries.

More from Joyce’s article, which notes that legislation may be on the way to help with this issue:

Randel Johnson, vice president of labor with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, pointed out that Europeans’ sick leave is usually subsidized by their governments, not the businesses themselves. “Money doesn’t grow on trees,” he said.

Organizations working for paid sick leave have been battling with groups that say making it mandatory would be a burden on businesses — especially small businesses. But companies in San Francisco are not yet putting up a fight against the measure, which is to become law Feb. 5.

There is movement among federal lawmakers as well.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-Conn., introduced the Healthy Families Act in 2005, to require that employers with at least 15 employees provide seven days of paid sick leave annually for full-time employees. Part-time employees would get prorated leave depending on the hours they worked. The leave could be used for the medical needs of employees or their family members.

The bill will be reintroduced in the next session, and Mr. Kennedy’s office expects that the Democratic majority will help it go further. Hearings are expected in the first few months of next year.

This is something to keep an eye on as the next Congress is sworn in.

While I am very happy to have the benefit in my current position, I think a mandate such as this could have crippling effects on the economy as a whole, especially sub-$10/hour jobs and those who the regulations are meant to protect.

That could make a lot of people sick, as an epidemic of pink slips could be issued.

More to come, I’m sure.

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