Each day in the commonwealth, sick workers and workers with an ill family member are faced with a difficult choice, go to work or stay home to care for their children or themselves.
For the 1.1 million workers in Massachusetts who do not have access to paid leave, this decision can have dire financial consequences.
It may mean not being able to pay rent, buy groceries, or otherwise support their family. As a result, many workers choose to go to work, exposing themselves, their families, their co-workers and their customers to unreasonable risks.
For an employee in a manufacturing plant, deciding to go to work may risk injury while operating heavy machinery. For a server in a restaurant, such a decision could result in the spread of illness to patrons and co-workers. Paid leave is a pressing public health issue.
In July at a public hearing of the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, on which I am privileged to serve as chair, the Chief of General Pediatrics at Children’s Hospital in Boston testified in support of proposed paid leave legislation.
In his testimony, he told the story of one of his patients, a 6-year-old boy with severe asthma. When the boy’s symptoms worsened, he could be treated at the clinic without needing to be admitted to the hospital, so long as he received treatment quickly. On three occasions in the prior 18 months, however, the boy was hospitalized because his mother was unable to bring the child to the clinic during her work hours for fear she would be fired.
The story is illustrative of the all-too-common, heart-breaking dilemma faced by workers in Massachusetts who lack paid leave.
It is also a social justice issue.
The dilemma faced by workers without paid leave is one that disproportionately affects women and the working poor. In our society, women often play the role of caregiver. When children get sick, women are often required to take the child to the doctor, to ensure that the child rests and takes their medicines.
Higher wage workers are also much more likely to have access to paid leave than lower wage workers. These inequities require our attention.
This legislation is beneficial not only to employees, but employers as well.
One business owner who testified in support of paid leave told of a time when a sick employee infected his other employees, decimating his work force.
Another argued that, in light of the loss of productivity when a worker comes to work sick and the increase in the time it takes the employee to recover, he believes it is a good business decision to give the employee a day off to care for his or herself, so they will return to work faster and healthier.
Access to sick leave benefits is said to prevent more than 33,000 flu infections in the workplace, which ultimately could save workers and their families more than $16 million in lost wages and medical costs.
Employees, in utilizing their sick leave will aid in protecting public health by preventing food and beverage contamination and the spread of illnesses in school environments.
The Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development’s paid leave legislation balances the need of employers to have flexibility when crafting leave and benefit policies for their employees, against the need for there to be a baseline when it comes to paid leave.
The reality is most businesses in Massachusetts already offer their employees some type of sick leave.
One small business owner who spoke to this issue said, “We have had a paid sick leave policy for over a decade. We have never experienced negative consequences from this policy. On the contrary, it has led to a healthier, more committed and more efficient work force. Small businesses like mine have nothing to fear from paid sick leave. It is the right thing to do.”
These employers recognize the benefits of providing their employees with sick leave in one form or the other and in providing such, conduct business without negative implications on business operations or profitability.
All this being taken into account, the bill is appropriately restrained, allowing employees of businesses with fewer than six employees to earn up to 40 hours of sick time per year that would be unpaid. Employers with existing paid time off policies which are consistent with the act do not have to change their policies.
Additionally, an employer does not have to provide sick leave for seasonal employees.
The passage of this bill would only affect approximately 36 percent of all Massachusetts employers in providing the paid leave benefit.
Paid sick leave legislation will also prevent costly impacts to businesses that are associated with employees who choose to work while sick. Lost productivity, employee turnover, and contagion would be reduced drastically, and would amount to a $348 million annual benefit to Massachusetts employers.
In addition, the spread of the flu, which accounts for 10 percent to 12 percent of all illness-related workplace absences, would also be reduced. It is my hope that the legislation will soon be approved by the House of Representatives and Senate.
Paid leave is a women’s issue, an economic justice issue and a public health issue.
I am pleased to stand with other legislators, community leaders, health professionals and businesspeople in support of the proposition that a person should not have to sacrifice their financial health to attend to their own or a family member’s physical health.
Connecticut recently became the first state in the country to require employers to provide paid leave to employees.
It is my sincere hope that Massachusetts will be the second.