Paid Sick Days: Why Not?

Earlier this month a source mentioned to me that around half of all U.S. workers don't get paid sick days. I did a double-take--how could that be true?

It is, of course, the reality, and a recent New York Times op-ed by Bob Herbert offers a window into a world without sick days:

The reality, for a surprising percentage of the U.S. population, is more like the 19th century. Nearly half of all full-time private sector workers in the U.S. get no paid sick days. None. If one of those workers woke up with excruciating pains in his or her chest and had to be rushed to a hospital — well, no pay for that day. For many of these workers, the cost of an illness could be the loss of their job.

The situation is ridiculous for those in the lowest quarter of U.S. wage earners. Nearly 80 percent of those workers — the very ones who can least afford to lose a day’s pay — get no paid sick days at all.

I recently spoke with Bertha Brown, a home health aide who lives in Philadelphia and has two young daughters. She makes $7 an hour caring for people who are ill or disabled. “I feed them and dress them,” she said. “And if they have to be changed, I do all that.”

She has worked for the better part of two decades without ever being paid for a sick day. And her wages are so low she can’t afford to lose even a day’s pay. “If I get sick, I work sick,” she said. “I cover my nose and my mouth with a mask to keep my clients from getting sick.”

Food service workers are among those least likely to get paid sick days. Eighty-six percent get no sick days at all. They show up in the restaurants coughing and sneezing and feverish, and they start preparing and serving meals. You won’t see many of them wearing masks.

Another opinion piece from SouthCoastToday.com offers this:

Most children today live in families where all the parents are employed. When a youngster gets the flu or pink eye, a parent's care means a speedier recovery. But too many parents have to think twice about missing work to comfort a sick child.

Little kids are typically the first in a community to show signs of the flu, and they are very effective little disease vectors, with their inherently tactile dispositions and poor sense of personal hygiene. If they can be kept home until they're no longer contagious, disease spread can be limited. But parents need some basic support from their employers in the form of time off with pay to nurse their children back to health and isolate them from their playmates.

A Matter of Flexibility

Workplace flexibility has struck a resounding chord in my reporting over the past few weeks--employers need to offer more flexible working environments, experts say, including flex-time, part-time work, and telecommuting. It seems paid sick days should also be on such a "flexibility" list.

Policies that compel employees to work through an illness are demoralizing, threatening to productivity and potentially hazardous to consumers' health. I see no way in which a "no paid sick days" practice benefits the bottom line.

What would be helpful, I think, is a little workplace flexibility.

What is your employer's policy on paid sick days? Do you have friends or family who've worked without paid sick days?

-kc   

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