Millions of working Americans canâ€™t afford to stay off work even if they or their children are ill. They need the dayâ€™s pay to survive. So they report to their jobs to work at less than full productivity and possibly spread their infections to fellow workers and others. Or they send sick children to school, exposing their classmates and teachers to the risk of infection.
It doesnâ€™t have to be that way. And it isnâ€™t in the worldâ€™s other industrialized nations. They guarantee workers paid sick leaves of seven days or more per year financed by government or employers or both. More than 35 countries also guarantee paid time off for workers to care for sick children at home.
Details are being worked out for implementation of an ordinance approved by
Perhaps the best hope rests with Congress. Republicans have blocked previous attempts to pass a federal measure, but key members of the new Democratic majority have put it high on their agenda, second only to raising the minimum wage.
Theyâ€™ve introduced bills by Sen. Edward Kennedy of
A related bill by Sen. Christopher Dodds of
But Kennedy warns that members of the GOP minority, despite their incessant claims of honoring such issues, may attempt to defeat the Senate bills with a filibuster on behalf of the business and corporate lobbyists who fiercely oppose the measures as unfair, costly burdens on employers.
There are plenty of effective advocates on the other side, however — religious, community and women’s organizations, labor and liberal groups and others that are working to forge a coalition like that which helped win minimum wage increases in half-a-dozen states last November.
Theyâ€™re lobbying on behalf of the deplorably high proportion of U.S. workers - nearly half overall and nearly three-fourths of those in the lowest pay brackets — who do not have paid sick leaves and who in most cases canâ€™t afford to take unpaid leaves, no matter how ill they or their family members may become. In the case of sick children, most simply canâ€™t afford to pay someone to care for them while theyâ€™re at work, ironically making less, or at least not much more, than theyâ€™d have to pay a caretaker.
Many of those who are forced to work despite their illness are employed as cooks, waiters, and in other service jobs and so frequently expose the general public to serious health hazards.
As studies of employers in other industrial nations show, the public and employers actually could profit from providing all workers paid sick leave. It would cut health care costs by enabling workers to seek early and routine medical care for themselves and family members. That, in turn, would enable them to miss fewer days of work and reduce employee turnover.
Donâ€™t forget, too, that sick workers invariably do less work and donâ€™t do it as well as healthy workers. Yet they draw the same pay and often in effect cost employers more than a paid sick leave would because of the loss in productivity by them and other workers they infect.
Thereâ€™s no financial excuse, then, nor any other excuse, to continue denying American workers the right to care for their health and that of their families without the penalty of losing income thatâ€™s essential to their well-being.
Copyright © 2007 Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based writer who has covered labor issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.