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Hepatitis Scare Highlights Need for Paid Sick Days

September 5, 2011

The Labor Day edition of the Fayetteville (North Carolina) Observer included this great op-ed by Louisa Warren, a policy advocate with the NC Justice Center and coordinator of the NC Paid Sick Days Coalition, a member group of Family Values @ Work.

Hepatitis Scare Highlights Need for Paid Sick Days

Because a food server with an illness couldn’t take time off without losing a job, thousands of North Carolinians were exposed to hepatitis.

According to a new lawsuit, one sick worker at a Fayetteville Olive Garden restaurant risked sending ripples of disease out into the community.

What if we could find a way to avoid frightening disease outbreaks, while protecting workers and supporting local business at the same time?

Good news: we’ve found one. Sensible workplace leave policies can protect our communities from illness while building prosperity for employees and employers alike.

No one wants to get hepatitis, or even a lower-impact disease like a cold or the flu. And no one wants to be forced to go to work when they’re sick.

Yet nearly half of North Carolina’s workers — 1.6 million people, including the Olive Garden worker at the center of this story — lack access to even one paid sick day.

Because a single food server with an illness couldn’t take time off without losing a job, nearly 3,000 people in the Fayetteville area had to be vaccinated at the behest of county health officials.

When workers are forced to prepare food while sick, we risk this kind of public health crisis. That’s one reason workers need access to paid sick days.

Another reason is economic. The verdict is in: When workers don’t have access to sick leave, everyone suffers. Businesses lose money, workers lose income and the public loses out on safe food.

A 2009 study found that guaranteeing North Carolina workers paid sick time would save millions of dollars and provide direct economic benefits to both employers and employees. These benefits, the research found, “will substantially outweigh” any costs.

Employers would profit, too, according to the study. Among the report’s findings:

Benefits for employers, largely from reduced costs of employee turnover, would total $418 million annually.

The weekly cost of the policy for newly covered workers would be $6.39 per worker. Savings to businesses will be $8.69 per worker, for a net savings of $2.30 per worker per week.

Workers would save $9 million annually on medical costs and short-term nursing home stays for relatives.

Olive Garden is owned by Darden Restaurant Group, a large, tremendously profitable corporation that does not provide its workers with paid sick days. In other states, Olive Garden and restaurants like it have faced protests for not providing sick leave.

Workers should be able to take care of themselves and their ill family members. That’s just a common-sense labor standard.

This is larger than one corporation, or fast food chain, or restaurant location, though. No one wants to get the flu with their fries. No one wants to get a shot — or worse yet, hepatitis — after discovering disease exposure after the fact.

Forcing workers to serve food while sick just makes potential outbreaks more likely.

The public should be able to dine out without fear of getting sick, and workers deserve reasonable time off to care for themselves and their families.

We no longer have to ask, “What if we had a way to achieve these goals?”

With paid sick days, public health improves, and businesses and customers alike benefit. North Carolina needs paid sick days.




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