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Grassroots Movement for Paid Sick Days for Workers Picking Up Steam Across the Country

A broad coalition across the country is fighting--and winning--battles for workers' right to stay home when they're ill.

It may seem like a no-brainer: get sick, stay home from work. But 44 million American workers do not get paid sick days from their employers, according to Ellen Bravo, director of Family Values at Work, a 16-state consortium that advocates for family-friendly work policies. In tough economic times, many workers simply cannot afford to stay out of work until they get well. Some employers will even fire workers for taking time off when they or their kids are sick, Bravo said.

“Bad [economic] times are the worst time to lose your job because you're being a good parent,” said Bravo. “We can't say we [as a nation] care about family values, and have those values end at the workplace door.”

Discontent with the lack of a coordinated policy on paid sick time has reached an unprecedented level. Groups of workers across the country say they've had it with being forced to show up sick to work. Restaurant Opportunity Centers (ROC) policy director Jose Oliva agrees that a change is needed. “Over two thirds of restaurant workers go to work sick,” he said, “because they can't afford not to go to work.” 

City- and state-based coalitions representing consumers, families, seniors, and other sectors of the general public are saying they've had enough germs in their restaurant food and enough of seeing their own kids get sick from contact at school with other sick kids whose parents must work rather than stay home with them. “It's a public health hazard to have workers work sick,” said Oliva.

Places that have paid sick days laws so far include:

  • Philadelphia, where the city council voted 15-2 on Oct. 13  to mandate paid sick days for workers whose employers have contracts with the city or apply for city subsidies;
  • San Francisco, where voters approved a citywide ordinance in 2006 giving workers the right to accrue 1 hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked;
  • Washington, DC, which adopted paid sick days in 2008, adding “safe” days for survivors of domestic violence, but excluding restaurant workers and workers in their first year of employment;
  • Seattle, where the city council approved a strong paid sick days law Sept. 12 and the mayor signed it Sept. 23; and
  • Connecticut, which on Jan. 1, 2012 will become the first state to implement a paid sick days law.

Research groups, including ROC and think tanks like the Denver-based Bell Policy Center, have conducted studies showing that restaurants and other businesses tend to see improved worker retention, and that local economies thrive after starting to give workers paid time off for illnesses.

Bravo cited a September 2011 study of San Francisco’s economy  by the women’s rights think tank Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “We now have the evidence,” said Bravo. “San Francisco has had paid sick days for four years. Job growth in that county is stronger than in the surrounding counties without paid sick days.”  

But some business associations still oppose paid sick days, saying such laws impose too much of a burden on employers.

Time—and battles over paid sick days legislation in places like Seattle and Denver—will tell whether such public support can build the kind of momentum that will be needed to overcome the lobbying efforts of these business groups and make paid sick days the law of the land.

The Slow Spread of Paid Sick Leave

In city after city, state after state, groups of people--senior citizens' groups, black and Latino advocacy groups, small business owners, public health professionals, labor unions, parents' groups, anti-poverty groups--are teaming up to push for local laws requiring employers to give workers at least a few paid sick days a year. Bravo’s group, Family Values at Work, is helping to coordinate and advise the local groups, and is pushing Congress to pass a national paid sick days law called the Healthy Families Act.

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