Lifting the ceiling on paid time off has intriguing possibilities, but the members of our union are more concerned with building a floor for all working people, especially when it comes to sick days.
For professionals at high-tech companies, unlimited time off could lead to a work culture with greater flexibility and personal responsibility, but it could also result in an environment where there is no accepted norm, so employees could become relentless in trying to outdo each other. This kind of nonstop engagement in one’s work could lead to debilitating stress and could ultimately have a negative impact on employees’ physical health and productivity.
That said, the real stress and danger to productivity in the workplace is the fact that over 44 million American workers have a tough time taking a single sick day without losing their job. Forty percent of the private-sector work force has no paid sick days whatsoever. Seventy-five percent of food service and hotel workers, and a majority of caregivers in child care centers and nursing homes, don’t have a single paid sick day. When workers who prepare and serve our food and care for our families can’t stay home sick, it’s not only bad for employees, but also a drag on our economy and a threat to public health.
We only have to look to the swine flu epidemic of 2009 to see how interconnected we are to the workers around us. During that outbreak, 8 million Americans went to work while infected, and then infected another 7 million people.
Contrary to misinformation from the big business lobby, paid sick days are actually good for employers and our economy. Studies have shown that paid sick days make workers more productive and efficient. Sick employees get the care they need, illnesses are prevented from spreading among co-workers, and there is less staff turnover.
Slowly and surely, we are making progress. Recently, the New York City Councilapproved the Earned Sick Time Act. It requires businesses of 20 or more employees (the threshold goes down to 15 employees in 2015) to offer five paid sick days a year. Connecticut; the District of Columbia; Portland, Oregon; Seattle and San Francisco have also passed laws that require minimum paid sick days. Campaigns are now moving forward in about 20 other states or cities.
Sadly, many state legislatures have caved under pressure from large corporations and moved to counter this grassroots effort with “preemption laws” that forbid local sick leave ordinances. Wisconsin legislators overturned Milwaukee’s paid sick day law in 2011, and now there are paid sick day preemption bills or laws in 13 states.
Among advanced economies, the United States is the only one that does not ensure a minimum number of paid sick days for workers, and also has one of the worst rates of wealth inequality. Our focus should not just be on providing unlimited time off to some professionals, but also ensuring minimum sick days for all workers through legislation at the city, state and federal level.
George Gresham is the president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East.