Give workers much-needed relief: Paid sick time

SHARE Give workers much-needed relief: Paid sick time

From left, Ald. Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st), Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) and Anne Ladky, executive director of Women Employed, discuss a proposal for paid sick days with the Sun-Times Editorial Board on April 26. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

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People who are sick should stay home from work. Sounds like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? There is no badge of honor for spreading the flu and other viruses to coworkers.

But many working-class folks, especially in a changed American economy comprised of many more lower-wage service jobs, go to work sick because they don’t want to be docked a day’s pay. Some 43 percent of about 1.1 million private-sector workers in Chicago do not get paid sick days. They work in restaurants, factories and department stores. Companies big and small do not offer sick leave.

A proposed ordinance in the Chicago City Council would give these workers, full- and part-timers, paid sick days. We support the bill in concept, though there is room for negotiation on how far it goes. Society pays a price, in terms of higher unemployment and family dysfunction, when a sick person dares not take a day off. The aim of the ordinance is to bring our labor policies into the modern age — a time when wages are stagnating — while minimizing the extra burden on Chicago businesses, which already complain about high taxes and fees.


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Under the ordinance sponsored by Ald. Toni Foulkes, 16th; Ameya Pawar, 47th; and Joe Moreno, 1st., workers would accrue one hour of paid sick leave for every 40 hours worked. A maximum of 40 hours, about five days, could be accrued in a 12-month period. Up to 20 hours, or 2 ½ days, could carry over to the next year.

Workers would be eligible to use paid sick days after being with a company for six months. Employees who don’t stick with jobs for long — such as students working a summer job — wouldn’t receive the benefit.

Without a doubt, some parents would use sick days to care for children, allowable under the ordinance. That could result in fewer conflicted moms and dads currently face a quandary: Do they send their sick kid to school or stay home with the child and lose grocery money?

Pawar said independent contractors and union members currently without paid sick time wouldn’t be covered by the ordinance. But he sees unions adopting the city’s model in future collective-bargaining agreements.

Since 2006, five states as well as Washington D.C., and more than 20 cities have enacted laws on paid sick time. California, New York City and Seattle are among those with laws on the books. Chicago needs to get with the times.

Going to work sick lowers productivity and creates hazardous work conditions. A factory worker who handles heavy machinery should not work when weakened by the flu. The National Partnership for Women and Families says workers with sick days are 28 percent less likely to be injured on the job.

For those who handle food — whether they grow, pick, cook or serve it — sick time is vital for the sake of public health. We’re eating that food. One of the best ways to cut down outbreaks of the dreaded norovirus is for workers to stay home if they catch it.

People go to work sick because they need every dime to pay the rent and feed their families. Fifty-one percent of food workers said they always or frequently go to work sick in a survey of food-service workers conducted by the Center for Research and Public Policy for Alchemy, a company that works with the food-service industry to improve safety and productivity. Another 38 percent said they sometimes go to work sick. Among six reasons offered, 45 percent said they “can’t afford to lose pay.”

Going to work sick isn’t isolated to the food service industry, but this scenario has significant consequences on public health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2014 that most norovirus outbreaks from contaminated food occur in settings such as restaurants, catering services and banquets.

According to the American Journal of Public Health, giving employees two flu days can reduce workplace infections by nearly 40 percent.

We understand this ordinance initially will place a burden on companies. It will require scheduling adjustments by business owners. But passing this ordinance is the responsible thing to do.

Workers shouldn’t be penalized for calling in sick. An ordinance to protect them, which in some cases also protects customers with whom they have contact, is past due.

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