Two years ago, the Cook County Board voted to raise the minimum wage to $13 an hour by 2020 and to require businesses to provide employees at least five days a year of paid sick time.
A handful of suburbs embraced these policies, but many more chose to opt out, to the dismay of many of their residents.
On November 6, the voters finally got a chance to have a say in this. Two advisory referendums on the ballot in Cook County asked whether municipalities should comply with the $13 minimum wage and the five days of paid sick leave. The voters overwhelmingly said “yes.”
More than 80 percent of the voters supported the higher minimum wage and 86 percent supported the paid sick leave.
As medical and public health professionals, we believe every town and suburb should listen to the will of the voters. They should opt back into the county minimum wage and paid sick leave ordinances.
We can attest to the critical importance of the two ordinances to the health and well-being of working families and the vitality of our economy. Reasonable minimum wage and paid sick leave policies boost the income and earning potential of low-income workers, who are more likely to reinvest their wages directly into the economy. This benefits our local businesses and our communities.
A better minimum wage and paid sick time work together to keep individuals, families and communities healthier. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that almost half of food service employees who go to work while seriously ill do not call in sick because they won’t be paid if they stay home. For a typical low-income family, research shows, a few days off from work can mean the loss of an entire month’s grocery budget.
When given the impossible choice between going without pay, or going to work while sick, people choose to show up to work sick. They risk making their own illness worse, spreading disease to coworkers and customers and endangering the public’s health.
Workers who do not receive paid sick time are less likely to access preventive care. They are, for example, more than 60 percent less likely to have had a flu shot in the last year, and more likely to delay screening for cancer, regardless of their insurance coverage or education level.
In 2016, the American Medical Association emphasized the community health benefits of paid sick leave, including benefits to “children’s health, shortened hospital stays, and [reductions in the] risk of disease transmission.” Maintaining a healthy and vital workforce is essential to controlling skyrocketing healthcare costs.
A fairer minimum wage, in every community, could help rebalance the astonishing wealth gap in the United States between those who labor in food, retail and service industries and those who profit from those industries. The lower a working family’s income, the less they can afford healthful food, medicine, medical care, transportation to school and work, and safe housing. People who struggle to make ends meet suffer from chronic stress, which puts further wear and tear on their bodies.
Raising the minimum wage can have a significant impact on health. One study in 2016 concluded that if all states raised their minimum wage by just a dollar, there would be a decline of almost 3,000 in the number of low-birth weight babies and more than 500 fewer neonatal deaths. A separate study in 2016 concluded that raising the minimum wage to $15 in New York City would result in 2,800 and 5,500 fewer premature deaths over five years.
Research on other forms of income or income loss, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, living wage and wage theft, show a clear connection between income and preventable disease and death.
We see unconscionable inequities when it come to health care and other resources in Cook County. But we envision a county in which we all can thrive, caring for our health and the health of our families. A $13 minimum wage and paid sick leave — in every community — could be a foundation for this future.
We urge every Cook County suburb to consider its collective responsibility to protecting each other’s health and well-being. And we call on them to do the will of the voters. On Nov. 6, they voted overwhelmingly for an increase in the minimum wage and a minimum number of paid sick days for every working person.
David A. Ansell, MD, MPH, is senior vice president for Community Health Equity at Rush University Medical Center & associate provost for Community Affairs at Rush University.
Linda Rae Murray, MD, MPH, FACP, is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois School of Public Health and past president of the American Public Health Association.
Send letters to: email@example.com.