Much-Needed Sick Leave Protections for Workers – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

The New Deal laws that were developed and enacted during the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) represent the framework of the social safety net that protects so many Americans today: minimum wage requirements and limits on hours workers can forced to toil; unemployment insurance for workers laid off through no fault of their own; Social Security benefits for older Americans that keep many from poverty or starvation. The New Deal accomplished so much, and yet, the women who ran the National Consumers League and their allies – like FDR and Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins – were frustrated that they could not achieve universal health coverage for all Americans.

Surely they would have been staunch proponents of providing minimal protections for working Americans to have access to paid sick leave. There’s a renewed campaign afoot to provide this basic protection for working Americans. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost half of full-time, private-sector workers have no sick days at all. Government data also shows a national trend toward a reduction in paid sick days. Research from The Project on Global Working Families at Harvard University found 139 nations provide paid days for short or long-term illnesses.

57 million Americans – nearly 50 percent of all private-sector workers in the United States – don’t have paid sick days. According to an ACORN survey conducted in March 2007, 50 of the largest retailers, more than don’t provide sick leave to their hourly employees. Workers need about seven sick days each year to manage their own health care. But for almost half of U.S. employees, the absence of sick pay is likely to cause them loss of income, a job or advancement, says the National Partnership for Women & Families.

So what happens when workers don’t get sick days? They go to work when they are ill, and they expose their customers and co-workers to their germs. Or they miss work and risk losing their jobs, and even if they don’t get fired, they lose a day’s (or more) pay. The consequences of a lack of paid sick days include health effects, workplace contagion, reduced productivity, turnover costs, poor recovery from illness and surgery, and increased use of healthcare resources.

ACORN, which is leading the charge for paid sick days, says almost half of working women say they must miss work when a child becomes ill, and almost half of those lose pay. Statistics show that children who lack a parent to stay home with them during their illness take longer to recover.

There are currently no federal protections to cover workers who need to take sick leave. The U.S. Family & Medical Leave Act enacted in 1993 provides only unpaid days for serious illness. There is currently no federal law guaranteeing a single day of paid sick leave to workers.

Economists estimate that “Presenteeism,” or employees who come to work sick, costs employers an average of $255 per employee per year and that American businesses lose $180 billion per year in productivity due to sickness in the workplace.

Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) have introduced the Healthy Families Act to address the need to provide a minimum of sick leave days for American workers.

The Healthy Families Act would require employers with 15 or more employees to provide seven paid sick days to care for their own and their families medical needs, benefiting 66 million Americans: 46 million would gain access to paid sick days; 19 million would gain paid sick days for leave for doctors visits and family care; and 1 million Americans would gain additional paid sick days.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates that the Healthy Families Act would result in a net savings, after covering costs of paid leave, of $8 billion per year.  Such savings are generated by reducing presenteeism, reducing employee turnover and preventing the spread of the flu.

The Healthy Families Act, HR 2460 in the House, has 105 co-sponsors. The early leaders of the NCL, who fought so hard for wage and hours protections for workers, surely would have supported this common-sense bill, and we at NCL today do as well. Workers who are ill shouldn’t have to decide whether to take their illness into the workplace or to stay home and risk losing their job – and a day’s pay. We call on members of Congress to support the Health Families Act and take a stand both for worker protections and for the health of America’s families.

Both NPWF and ACORN are taking a lead in Congress on sick pay legislation.  In addition, the Center for Economic and Policy Research has a great deal of useful research and information on this important issue.