Next time you go out for a romantic dinner, consider this stomach turning fact from a study led by Dr. Steven Sumner at Duke University Hospital: one out of eight restaurant workers has come to work at least twice in the past year while suffering from diarrhea or vomiting. It’s not because they’re vying for the chance to be the next Typhoid Mary. It’s because they’re one of the 38 percent of private sector workers who don’t have access to paid sick days.
The bulk of the workers who do not have paid sick days are in low paid service sector occupations, such as restaurants, grocery stores, day care centers and nursing homes, where they are in contact not only with food, but those most vulnerable to infection – very young children and the elderly.
A study conducted by Penn State University found that the lack of paid sick days for private sector workers increased public health risks during the H1N1 pandemic, and continue to leave the country “ill-prepared… for future outbreaks of contagious diseases.” More than 90 percent of public sector employees, who have paid sick days, stayed home from work in accordance with CDC guidelines during the H1N1 pandemic, but only 66 percent of private sector employees took time away from work when infected. When you are making minimum wage or not much more and stand to lose income vital to your family’s survival – or your employment – it’s easy to understand why employees head to work even if it puts the broader community at risk. And so we had a situation where 8 million workers infected with H1N1 went to work, thereby infecting an estimated seven million co-workers.
The usual arguments are being trotted out in opposition to the bill. “If paid sick days passes, Connecticut will be the only state in the country to pass such a piece of legislation and what kind of message does that send?” Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said Wednesday. “It says Connecticut is not open to business.”
The Connecticut Business and Industry Association opposes the bill on the grounds that it would cause businesses to lose their competitive edge.
But is this really the case?
In 2007, San Francisco, passed the nation’s first paid sick leave legislation. Since then, job growth has been consistently higher in San Francisco than in neighboring counties that lack a paid sick days law, according to a Drum Major Institute study. San Francisco also experienced stronger employment growth than neighboring counties in leisure and hospitality, accommodation, and food service—the very industries critics claimed would be most negatively affected by a paid sick days law. Meanwhile, suspicions that workers would use sick days as additional vacation days proved false. A study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that despite the availability of either five or nine sick days under the sick day plan, the typical worker with access used only three paid sick days during the previous year, and one-quarter of employees with access used zero paid sick days.
Looking at this on a global basis, of the 15 most economically competitive countries in the world, the United States was the only one that didn’t offer paid sick leave according to an eight year study by Harvard and McGill Universities. It’s incredibly myopic of the business community to look at this as a measure that we can’t afford because it makes us less competitive. It’s symptomatic of the old fashioned, inflexible thinking that will prevent us from becoming a truly competitive 21st century global power. Interestingly, for first time this year, San Francisco ranked in the top five (#3) in the 2011 edition of the Cities of Opportunity report from PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the Partnership for New York City, which ranks the best 26 cities around the globe on business opportunities, culture, livability, and innovation. From both a health and economic perspective, it seems unwise not to provide paid sick leave.
Sarah Darer Littman is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers and an award-winning novelist of books for teens. Long before the financial meltdown, she worked as a securities analyst and earned her MBA in Finance from the Stern School at NYU.