It seems obvious (especially now, in the midst of flu season) why all workers should have the right to take paid time off due to personal health issues or to care for sick family members, but it's not; forty percent of private-sector workers have no access to paid sick days, and even many of those who actually do are under intense pressure not to miss work. Consider how 64-year-old former postal service worker Deborah Ford, who retired without ever taking a sick day after 44 years of work, has been praised for her "dedication." Women and minorities are already less likely to receive paid sick days; we should be worried, not impressed, when we hear how some people work for decades without taking time off.
Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, wrote a Politico op-ed explaining why he's reintroducing the Healthy Families Act, a bill that would allow workers to earn paid sick days "that can be used to recover from a short-term illness, care for a sick family member, obtain preventive or diagnostic treatment or seek help if they have been victims of domestic violence." It's also a bill that's been stalled for years, thanks to efforts by organized business interests with lots of cash.
Under the Healthy Families Act, workers can earn up to 56 hours, or seven days, of paid sick time. Workers earn one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked. Employers that already provide paid sick time will not have to change their current policies, as long as their existing time can be used for the same purposes. Employers can also require workers to provide documentation supporting any request for leave longer than three consecutive days.
The United States is the only developed nation that does not guarantee paid sick days to its workers, and our economy and productivity suffer as a result. Contrary to popular belief, not absenteeism, but "presenteeism"- when a sick employee shows up to the workplace and infects his or her colleagues - is the greatest cause of lost productivity due to illness. One study found that a lack of paid sick days - and thus the inability to distance oneself from co-workers - contributed to an additional 5 million cases of the H1N1 flu during the 2009 outbreak.
Seventy percent of low-wage workers - those least likely to be able to afford a lost paycheck or lost job - have no paid sick days. This group is largely workers in jobs that have frequent contact with members of the public, including food service, hospitality, nursing home care and child care. Their lack of paid sick leave poses a public health threat to all of us and our loved ones. Shockingly, nearly two-thirds of restaurant workers have reported cooking or serving food while sick. Workers' rights should matter to everyone, but they matter even more when you consider that your next turkey sandwich might be served with a side of the flu.
Today is the 20th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act, the first bill President Bill Clinton signed into law, which mandates that employees are entitled to up to 12 weeks of protected leave to recover from a serious illness or care for a new child or seriously ill family member. But "protected" isn't the same as "paid," and the FMLA covers only 60 percent of workers. We need more.