The debate over state-mandated paid sick days for private-sector employees focuses on economics and fairness, but advocates say the real issue is public health.
Paid sick days is a growing issue in cities and states across the country. Milwaukee, San Francisco and Washington D.C. have passed paid sick day laws, and Philadelphia, New York City and Seattle have bills under consideration. More than a dozen states, including all six New England states, are weighing proposed legislation. The Connecticut bill requires businesses with more than 50 people to provide paid sick days.
“The vast majority of my patients work without paid sick days,” said Dr. Stephen Smith, a family physician at the Community Health Center in New London and a family medicine professor emeritus at Brown University. “When they go into work sick because they can’t afford a day without pay, it affects their own health as well as those they might be serving.”
A typical example, Smith said, is a patient he treated recently who was complaining of flu-like symptoms. The patient was feverish and vomiting but, as a minimum-wage food-service employee with no paid sick days, he insisted on going into work that evening. He tried to hide his symptoms, but when he vomited at work, his manager sent him home.
Smith’s patient isn’t an isolated case. A recent study published in the Journal of Food Protection found that one out of eight restaurant workers went to work at least twice in the past year while suffering from diarrhea or vomiting.
More than 480,000 private sector employees in Connecticut lack paid sick days, according to a 2010 study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, with the majority heavily concentrated in the service sector jobs—waiters, retail clerks, home health providers and certified nursing assistants.
“Food service is not a place were you want employees showing up with contagious infections,” said U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District. DeLauro was on hand at a rally in support of the proposed legislation outside a Friendly’s restaurant in West Haven. In recent weeks similar rallies, organized by Everybodybenefits.org, have been held in front of Walmart, Starbucks, the International House of Pancakes and McDonalds, all employers who don’t provide paid sick days for their front-line employees.
According to the Center for Disease Control, of the more than 20 million annual outbreaks of norovirus, a highly contagious food borne illness, half were linked to ill food services workers. Smith, who also treats many certified nursing assistants, says the health risks are even greater when the employee who goes to work sick is working with frail, elderly patients.
Tessa Marquis, owner of New Standard Institute, a Milford training and consulting company, attended the West Haven rally in support of the legislation. She said her five employees all receive paid sick days, and there’s been no negative economic impact on her business. “We encourage people who are sick not to come to work,” she said. “If a person with the flu stays out, it keeps everyone else healthy and working.”
The proposed bill, which was approved by the Judiciary Committee recently and has the support of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, would require that businesses with 50 or more employees provide paid sick days. Workers would accrue one hour of sick time for every 40 hours worked, for a total of one week a year. The General Assembly has until June 8 to take action.
Opponents of the bill, including the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, argue that it is too expensive and could cost the state jobs.
In San Francisco, which adopted similar legislation four years ago, that dire prediction has not come true. The women’s policy survey found that since the law went into effect, the city has added 59,000 employees. It also found that most employers (66 percent) support the benefit and that it is rarely abused by employees.
DeLauro, who co-sponsored similar federal legislation – the Healthy Families Act – with the late U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-MA, hopes Connecticut will send a message to the nation by becoming the first state in the country to pass a paid sick days law. “The time is now,” she said.