Op-Ed: Earned Sick Time Means Healthier Employees and Businesses

Ahmad Yousaf | December 13, 2013 | Opinion
Without paid sick time, workers are typically forced to choose between getting better or getting paid

Dr. Ahmad Yousaf
Last week, the Newark City Council introduced legislation for earned sick time. Earned sick time is a commonsense public-health issue: If you’re sick, you should stay home and take care of yourself (or if you’re very sick, visit a doctor). Unfortunately, 40 percent of private-sector workers nationwide don’t have this option.

While most of us can stay home from work when feeling sick, working families in Newark who cannot earn paid sick days on the job face a tough decision: Do they stay home and take care of themselves? Or do they go to work to be able to pay their bills? In some cases, these employees aren’t even allowed to take an unpaid day off, and are in danger of losing their job if they miss work.

Food workers, childcare workers, and home health aides in particular struggle with this choice, even though they’re at a higher risk for transmitting illness when they do get sick.

We know workers without earned sick time are more likely to go to work while sick, but they are also more likely to delay needed medical care, which turn minor health problems into serious, costlier ones. These patients often end up in the emergency room, stressing the most expensive and least effective place to receive care, because they held off receiving the care they needed. The added cost of this to our health system affects all of us.

Because of the realities of urban life, the health of one can very quickly affect the health of all of us — particularly during the flu season that we are in the midst of. The flu virus is able to live on surfaces, like the glass your waiter hands you, or the coffee cup passed to you by the barista, or the woman who couldn’t take time away from work who sat on the bus next to you.

We don’t have to guess what happens when restaurant workers lack paid sick time. We can look at cases like a restaurant worker in North Carolina, who, without the option of paid sick days, continued to work as a cook in a restaurant even while severely ill with hepatitis A, transmitting the virus to those who ate the food he prepared, starting an epidemic of hepatitis.

In 2008, when a worker at a Chipotle restaurant in Kent, OH, had no choice but to come to work sick with the norovirus, more than 500 people in the Kent community become violently ill.

It’s not only workers who suffer because of the lack of earned sick time. Their children suffer, too, when their parents don’t have the option to take time off work. Parents without earned sick time are more than twice as likely to send a sick child to school or daycare. As a result, they risk their child’s health and jeopardize the health of their child’s classmates and teachers.

Opponents to the legislation claim that it will hurt small businesses. But these opponents are not the small businesses; they are multibillion-dollar corporations and lobbyists who have opposed all workplace reforms, from fire escapes to ending child labor, establishing the minimum wage, or unpaid family leave.

The reality is that earned sick days are good for businesses’ bottom lines. Small businesses support earned sick days because it results in reduced turnover, which saves them money. Sick workers can infect their fellow workers, causing the business to lose productivity. Earned sick days help decrease the productivity lost when employees work sick, which is estimated to cost our national economy $160 billion annually — more than the cost of absenteeism. Workers return faster to full productivity because they regain their health more quickly.

Earned sick days also strengthen the economy. A worker who chooses to stay home and loses a day’s wages — or worse, his or her job — undermines that family’s ability to contribute to the economy, forcing them to rely on public programs to stay afloat.

Further, states that have implemented paid sick days are doing well. Connecticut enacted the first statewide paid sick days law, and the Department of Labor reports that since it was implemented in 2011, employment has grown in Connecticut’s leisure and hospitality and education and health services sectors, the two most impacted by the new law.

All of this seems like commonsense. Offering earned sick days will help all of us lead healthier lives, support the economy, and save small businesses money. Earned sick day laws have already been successfully implemented in San Francisco, Washington D.C., and New York City. This past October, our neighbors in Jersey City signed a paid sick time bill into law. Now it’s Newark’s turn to support its workers, families and small businesses.