Column: Earned Sick Time: Protecting Our Workers, Our Public Health, and Our Economy

Did you know that nearly one million working people in Massachusetts, representing nearly one-third of our workforce, risk losing their pay and even their jobs if they have to take a sick day to care for themselves or a sick child?  This lack of security harms families, the public health, and our economy.

According to a 2010 study by the University of Chicago, nearly one-quarter of workers report that they have been fired, suspended, or otherwise disciplined or threatened for taking time off work due to personal illness or to care for a sick family member.  One in six workers has actually been fired.

Meanwhile, countless workers trudge to work even when they are battling a contagious illness that can impact co-workers.  For instance, the Boston Globe reported on a study of employees at the Staples office supply chain that found that nearly 80% of workers “said they come to work even when sick, an increase of 20 percent from a year ago.”   Staples further noted that “the flu virus is responsible for approximately 70 million missed workdays and an estimated $10 billion in lost office productivity.”  Sick workers spreading colds, flus, and other illnesses to co-workers no doubt exacerbated that finding.

A 2012 analysis by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that earned sick time policies reduce employee turnover, contagion, and lost productivity, saving Massachusetts employers $26 million annually.  Reducing turnover also prevents the need of employers to spend time, resources, and money finding and training new workers to replace workers who had been denied sick time.

Earned sick time policies also appear to not harm overall employment, and are actually a positive for job growth.  San Francisco’s paid sick days law took effect in 2007.  Looking at the immediate effect, between 2006 and 2010, total employment in San Francisco increased by 3.5% while employment in five neighboring counties decreased by 3.4%.  In other words, earned sick time is good for business and our economy, in addition to being good for our families and our public health.

That’s why I’m proud to have been a lead sponsor on a bill before the Legislature to establish earned paid sick time.  The policy would provide urgently needed stability for many families.  Two-thirds of workers without earned sick time make less than $24,000 a year, meaning that the loss of even a few days of pay could equal, say, the grocery bill for the month.

Currently, the legislative effort to implement earned sick time is held up in committee.  In case this legislative effort stalls on Beacon Hill, we have the back-up of a ballot initiative that will appear before voters this November calling for earned sick time.  Like with the effort to raise the minimum wage in Massachusetts, activists from the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures of voters across the Commonwealth to accomplish this goal, revealing the broad, grassroots support for this urgently needed policy specifically and support for stronger economic justice policies more broadly.

Finally, here is the ultimate reminder of why earned sick time will benefit you personally, whether or not you already receive sick days from your employer.  A major study of the restaurant industry found that nearly two-thirds of cooks and servers report having worked at their restaurant while ill.  I’m sure you don’t want to put your health at risk because a line cook feared lost pay or a lost job for simply taking a much-needed sick day.

Passing earned sick time will meet the moral imperatives of providing families with more security, improving our public health, and strengthening economic justice, while also meeting the economic imperatives of actually saving money and reducing turnover in the workplace.

Author’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series focusing on economic justice policies pertaining to legislation that is currently before the Massachusetts Legislature and that will appear before voters on the November ballot.  The first part was on raising the minimum wage in the Commonwealth.