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The President Should Give Contractors Paid Sick Leave Today

Damon L. Daniels

Earlier this year, President Obama exercised his direct authority by signing an Executive Order to raise the wages of federally contracted employees to at least $10.10 an hour. This move is essential to the wage fairness movement, as Demos has articulated extensively. However, as important as this action is with respect to adding to the momentum of minimum wage efforts happening nationwide, there remains more work to do.

Insert New York City. On April 1, New York City’s Earned Sick Time Act went into effect. Accordingly, employers with five or more employees who are hired to work more than 80 hours in a calendar year, or employers who have one or more domestic employees who have been working for at least one year and work more than 80 hours in a calendar year, must be granted paid sick leave. Unpaid sick leave must be granted by employees with less than five employees. If New York can get this done, then what’s stopping the President?

With another stroke of his pen, President Obama can authorize an Executive Order mandating paid sick leave for the same federally contracted workers whom he just gave a raise to. Popular support abounds; polling indicates that workers heavily favor paid sick leave provisions. Yet today, nearly 40 percent of workers, and particularly, 80 percent of all low-wage workers—the majority of whom are women, by the way—do not receive the benefit.

Paid sick leave is a necessary complement to minimum wage increases; what good does it to earn a higher wage if that increase can effectively be nullified, by means of a worker facing the specter of losing earnings and/or being terminated altogether for failing to report to work upon taking ill? 

Paid sick leave makes sense for a number of reasons. For workers, the time away allows them to recover faster from their ailments and prevent future health complications, both for themselves and potentially, their loved ones. For employees, sick leave is less costly to provide versus lost revenue due to “presenteeism”—workers who report to the job while sick and are consequently less productive—and turnover costs associated with voluntary and involuntary termination. For the public at large, paid sick leave is a public health matter: sick workers who have to move to and from work are more likely to both be vulnerable to and spread illness. Allowing workers time away from work to rest and/or seek the medical attention they need is a preemptive and preventive gesture that should always be favored.

An Executive Order requiring federal contractors to provide paid sick leave is a commonsense step in building support for a larger federal paid sick leave campaign. Americans have the right to take care of themselves when their health is not well. Employers—and to this specific case, the President—have a public duty to respond to this need decisively and effectively.