Close to Home: Workers need paid sick leave

The United States is the only country among 22 wealthy nations that doesn’t guarantee universal paid sick days for its workforce. The global COVID-19 pandemic has ignited a long-overdue public dialogue about the issue. In March, Congress and the president approved temporary sick leave legislation, but it expires on Dec. 31. There is so much more to be done.

The federal legislation mandates 14 paid sick days for workers who have coronavirus symptoms, are under quarantine or isolation orders, or are caring for affected family members, including children whose schools are closed. Employers receive a payroll tax credit to offset the costs.

But the law contains giant loopholes: companies with more than 500 workers are exempt, and firms with fewer than 50 can apply for a hardship waiver. The New York Times estimated that only 20% of the workforce is eligible.

Low-wage employers, backed by congressional Republicans and the Trump administration, blocked a Democratic proposal for comprehensive emergency paid sick leave and seven days of permanent paid sick leave, accrued annually.

The shelter-in-place strategy for emergencies such as the coronavirus pandemic won’t succeed without paid sick leave.

Essential frontline service workers experience high public contact levels. People working in home care, health care, child care, janitorial services, pharmacies, transit, grocery stores, food service and warehouses risk exposure to COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. They can pass those infections to other workers, their families, customers and patients. Sadly, most essential services workers don’t earn a living wage and cannot afford to stay home without pay.

The Economic Policy Institute reports that 93% of the highest-paid private-sector workers have paid sick leave and are the most likely to work remotely. In contrast, only 30% of the lowest-paid workers receive paid sick leave, and these workers are the least likely to work from home.

Sixty percent of restaurant and food-service workers report working when sick — half forced by a lack of paid sick leave. Infected servers and cooks who handle food cause two-thirds of restaurant-related food-borne illness outbreaks.

Thirteen states, including California, and 22 cities mandate paid sick leave. California requires three days of paid sick leave per year. Workers in San Francisco and Oakland can accrue up to nine days.

Working parents who receive paid sick leave are less likely to send their children to child care or school than those who do not.

States and cities with paid sick leave laws experience lower seasonal influenza rates than those without.

Paid sick leave benefits businesses, since those employees recover more quickly and are less likely than those who work while sick to infect fellow workers. Employees with paid sick leave are more productive, and employers who offer paid sick leave experience lower turnover rates, recruitment and training costs.

Paid sick leave yields positive outcomes for patients and clients too. Patients in nursing homes where workers receive paid sick leave have lower rates of respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses than those without.

Finally, paid sick leave ensures economic security for workers. For a typical California worker without paid sick leave, losing seven days to illness is equivalent to the family’s average monthly grocery bill (for two parents working full time to support two children).

Losing wages, and possibly their job, isn’t an alternative for low-wage service workers. One in six reports they have been fired or disciplined for taking a sick day.

The cities of San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles and Oakland approved 14 days of emergency paid sick leave for workers affected by the coronavirus. The state of New York mandated 14 emergency paid sick days for large employers.

To close the federal legislation’s loopholes, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and the Santa Rosa City Council should provide 14 days emergency paid sick leave for all workers. The county and the city also should emulate the San Jose City Council’s recent decision to consider requiring at least 10 days of permanent paid sick leave annually when the COVID-19 crisis subsides.

Martin J. Bennett is an instructor emeritus at Santa Rosa Junior College and a research and policy associate for UNITE HERE Local 2850.