After having delivered prime-time telecasts from the Olympic Games since 1988, NBC’s Bob Costas had to step aside due to a pink eye infection. Wonkblog’s Sarah Kliff opined that Bob Costas did the right thing, noting, “People turning up to work sick is actually a vexing problem for employers that could, by some estimates, cost them as much as $150 billion a year.” Sick employees showing up to work can more easily spread their diseases to co-workers and customers, as well as fellow carpoolers or transit riders.
In Costsas’ case, his initial reluctance to stay home (or in his hotel room) to recover was probably based on a desire to maintain his Olympics coverage record and spare the network the difficulty of finding a replacement newscaster. For millions of US workers, though, staying home sick can mean losing pay or even being fired. The National Partnership for Women & Families has found that more than 80% of low-wage workers – including the majority of food-service workers – lack access to paid sick days. For workers who earn the least, missing work to recover from the flu or another illness can make it hard to pay the rent or buy groceries.
The US Congress has repeatedly failed to vote on the Healthy Families Act, which would require businesses with 15 or more employees to let workers earn up to seven job-protected sick days each year. The American Public Health Association has adopted a policy statement urging the US Congress to pass a law “requiring all employers to allow employees to accrue paid sick leave,” and it supports the Healthy Families Act. In the absence of federal legislation fully addressing the problem of inadequate paid leave, APHA urges state and local governments to pass paid-leave laws, if they have not already done so – and that’s exactly what’s been happening.
The state of Connecticut and the cities of San Francisco; Washington, DC; Seattle; Portland, OR; New York City; Jersey City, NJ have all passed laws requiring that workers be able to earn paid sick days, and Newark, NJ’s law awaits Mayor Luis Quintana’s signature. Several states have made progress recently on bills that would greatly increase the population of workers with access to paid sick leave:
- California: Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez has introduced a bill (AB 1522) that would allow workers to earn up to three paid sick days per year, at a rate of one hour of leave for each 30 hours worked.
- Illinois: The group Women Employed leads the campaign supporting the Healthy Workplace Act (HB 2871/SB 128), which would allow workers to accrue an hour of paid sick time for each 30 hours worked, up to seven paid sick days per year.
- Maryland: Senator Catherine E. Pugh and Delegate John A. Olszewski, Jr. have introduced the Earned Sick and Safe Leave Act, which would allow workers to earn one hour of sick time for each 30 hours worked, up to 56 hours (seven days) per year. Employees could also use leave to obtain medical attention, counseling, and services for domestic violence, sexual, assault, or stalking. The group Working Matters urges supporters to turn out for a Senate Finance Committee hearing on February 20.
- Massachusetts: The coalition Raise Up Massachusetts has collected enough signatures to put an earned-sick-time measure on the state’s November 2014 ballot, along with a companion measure that would raise the state minimum wage to $10.50 an hour. The ballot initiative would allow workers to earn up to 40 hours of sick time each year, although the time could be unpaid for workers at businesses with 10 or fewer employees.
- Vermont: H 208 would allow employees to earn up to seven days of leave each year, which they could use for safe time (to take necessary steps for safety as a result of sexual abuse, domestic violence, or stalking) as well as for illness or medical issues. In its current form, the bill exempts businesses with four or fewer employees; Vermont Public Radio’s Bob Kinzel suggests that when it comes to the floor for a vote, lawmakers could offer amendments increasing the size of businesses that would be exempt.
- Washington: The state’s House of Representatives has passed HB 1313, sponsored by Rep. Laurie Jinkins, which would let workers earn five to nine sick days (the amount varies by employer size, and businesses with fewer than four employees are exempt). The Seattle Weekly’s Matt Driscoll notes that the conservative-controlled state Senate is moving in the opposite direction with SB 6307, “which would prohibit local municipalities from creating minimum wages that differ from the state’s minimum wage and also from forcing private employers to offer work leave benefits beyond what the state requires.”
Whether they’ve got pink eye, the flu, or another medical condition, workers should be able to stay home to recover – or to care for a sick family member – without fearing that they’ll lose pay or be fired. We’ll be watching these states and others to see how paid-sick-days legislation fares.