Compared to the rest of the advanced world, the United States offers famously weak protections to workers. For instance, employees in every other developed country are guaranteed vacation by law, often a few weeks. Americans workers don't even get a single day under Federal labor rules. New mothers most everywhere get paid time off as a matter of course. Here less than half the work force is guaranteed unpaid time.
But surely one of the dumbest and most counterproductive features of the U.S. system is the failure to guarantee paid sick time to workers. As a result, over a third of all workers lack even one paid sick day per year. Many of those who can't take time off when they're sick are low-income workers in the retail and restaurant industries.
Think about that the next time a waitress brings out your food or a cashier handles your credit card. Or consider this unnerving story from a student in New York City named Zyad Hammad -- unnerving because it sounds so utterly banal:
To support myself, I work as a cashier at Urban Outfitters. This flu season affected me very badly, and this winter, along with thousands of other Americans, I was extremely sick for a week. Because I’m part time not only do I not get health care from my job, I don’t get a single paid sick day either.
I had a bad cough, congestion, a runny nose, and my body was exhausted. I called out on the first day, but then worked while very sick the next three days because I knew that If I didn’t go in, there was no way I could make rent last month. And like all of my co-workers who also don’t get sick days, I was scared that if I missed three or four shifts due to an illness, that I’d be written up or fired.
For three days, I stood on my feet all day and worked my shifts with the flu. Because I’m a cashier, not only did I put my co-workers at risk, but the hundreds of customers each day that I took cash and credit cards from, while coughing and blowing my nose.
The lack of paid sick days is clearly not just harsh labor policy, it's bad economic policy. Who knows how many people Hammad infected. But if just two or three people ended up with the flu, that's a significant amplifying affect in terms of potential lost productivity -- and even more so if those people, in turn, infected others.
Which brings me to why employers should reverse their historic opposition to laws that ensure paid sick days. Employers shouldn't want sick workers to show up to their jobs because of the risk that they'll infect other workers and slow down business. Would you rather have one guy call in sick for a few days and pay him, or have five people call in sick and be scrambling to keep things running?
Quite apart from the effect of sick workers on other workers in the same workplace, the fact is that all employers benefit from steps to keep the entire population healthy. Whether you grant your employees paid sick time or not, you don't want them bringing germs to the office that they picked up from, say, the cashier at Subway when they went out for a sandwich.
Indeed, it's the employers who already grant paid sick days who should be leading the charge to improve public health by guaranteeing such leave for all workers. The employers doing the right thing take a hit when their employees are infected in public places by sick workers who have been forced to come in to work by bottom feeder employers.
No place is all this worse than in New York City, where people are in such close proximity to each other. Talk to any New York employer around this time of year and you'll hear about all the people out of the office -- and how that slows things down.
High-road employers need to have a word with Christine Quinn, speaker of the New York City Council. Right now, a Paid Sick Leave bill is before the Council, introduced by Gail Brewer. The bill enjoys the support of about 40 members of the Council's 51 members. But as reported earlier this week, "Speaker Christine Quinn refuses to allow the measure to come to a vote, claiming as she has for weeks, that it would be 'unwise' to back the Paid Sick Leave Act because it would somehow hurt 'businesses struggling to stay alive.'”
That's a narrow view. In fact, a healthier labor force would be good for New York City's economy. Period.
Last point: Public health policy is yet one more way that government facilitates economic prosperity and a well functioning society. Sick leave is unique in that labor, economic, and public health are all rolled up in one policy issue -- an issue crying our for leadership from the top.