Paid sick days legislation would benefit public health, business


(Jan. 16, 2013) — A friend of mine ordered a sandwich two weeks ago and by the following Saturday was down with the flu.  How did that happen?  The worker at the cash register was feeling lousy, sneezing and coughing.  And contagious.  So my friend was down with the flu for a week.  Thanks to the flu shot she had gotten, it didn’t last for weeks.  But when she was sick, she was really sick.

That fellow at the cash register isn’t to blame.  He didn’t have any paid sick days.  So he had to choose between working while sick or earning nothing and possibly losing his job.  Now multiply that situation by a thousand times in our state, and you have a petri dish for incubating the flu.  More than 1,000 people have been diagnosed with the flu in the past month.  In Snohomish County, three have died from the flu and 52 people have been hospitalized.  And that may be just the tip of the iceberg.

There are two important things you can do to counter the flu.  The first is easy — get immunized.  The Affordable Care Act mandates that your insurance coverage provide immunization to you with no co-payment, co-insurance, or co-anything else!  And if you don’t have health insurance, you can get often get free or low-cost immunizations at local clinics. Get immunized!

The second thing we can do is to have the Legislature enact paid sick days in our state as a public health measure.  That is exactly what Seattle’s Mayor and City Council put into law in 2011.  It was considered “landmark” legislation, but really, it just makes common sense. Consider this:  you get sick with the flu. You are contagious for five days.  You go to work.  You feel lousy.  But what you are really doing is infecting your fellow employees and your customers.  That’s because the flu spreads easily from person to person by coughing and sneezing.  Those people get sick and feel lousy, too.  And the cycle spirals down from there.

What happens to the business?  All of a sudden a good part of your workforce is sick.  But your deadlines and your customers may not be aware of this.  You are in a bind.

Now think about what happens with paid sick days.  An employee gets sick.  She stays home and isolates herself, gets over the flu, comes back to work, and all of your other employees are still healthy.  Company productivity may take a small dip, but not a huge one.  Work returns to normal.  That makes paid sick leave a money-maker for business, rather than a drain on potential profits.

This common-sense solution will be considered by the Washington State Legislature in the next several months.  A lot of us think that workers already have paid sick days, or if they don’t, that’s their fault and they should advance themselves into jobs that do offer better benefits.  Good luck with that.

About 1 million workers (one out of three) in our state don’t have paid sick days, including 240,000 in food service and other retail work, and almost 100,000 in health care work.  These are the workers we depend on for the day-to-day purchases, meals, physical assistance, and caring for our kids in child care.  Of all workers, perhaps it is most important, from a purely public health standard, that these frontline workers have paid sick days.  And yet, they are the ones least likely to have the right to take time off when they are sick.  Or when their kids are sick…

Think about that:  your kid gets sick in school with the flu.  Do you pull him out of school and let him languish by himself, accompanied by TV?  Do you send him back to school, where he will cough and sneeze and infect other kids? Do you risk losing your pay and your job to take care of him?

We shouldn’t have to make these awful choices. That is why the Legislature should stop saying that they support families and workers, and actually pass a law enacting paid sick days, showing that they really do support families and workers (and businesses, for that matter).

That would be a New Year’s Resolution that would benefit all of us.

John Burbank is the executive director and founder of the Economic Opportunity Institute in Seattle. He can be reached at john@eoionline.org.

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