Has the Time for Paid Sick Leave Finally Come?

Citizen Wealth Financial Justice
Activists hold signs during a rally at New York's City Hall to call for immediate action on paid sick days legislation in light of the continued spread of the flu in  Jan 2013.
Activists hold signs during a rally at New York’s City Hall to call for immediate action on paid sick days legislation in light of the continued spread of the flu in Jan 2013.

New Orleans      Don’t let some good news get by you in the headlines about bombing the bejesus out of Syria and the rising inequality gap, let’s celebrate the fact that California took a giant step in advancing the prospects for mandatory paid leave for workers as Governor Brown signed a bill granting accrual of three sick days per year for 6.5 million workers, joining Connecticut as the only state with guaranteed sick days. We only have about 40 million workers to go, but this is a giant leap forward in a campaign that has been slow to get traction, but after eight years or so is showing more and more results.

The DOL’s Bureau of Labor Standards estimates that 4 of 10 workers have no sick plan coverage. When we began to push for sick leave as an expansion of the living wage fights eight years ago, we knew we were in for a slough, but now following the living wage pattern, some cities have also taken the lead with sick pay guaranteed for workers in New York City, Portland, San Diego, and Washington, D.C. for example

The California plan is both interesting and disturbing. Interesting because it doesn’t separate part and full-time workers on its accrual system. An hour of paid sick time is accrued for every thirty hours of work up to a cap of three days, which means that after 720 hours of work, which is less than one-third of fulltime hours of 2080, a worker has earned the full three days for that year. What was shocking is that a last minute amendment was passed exempting home health workers from coverage, prompting SEIU and other unions to withdraw their support for the sick leave bill. How can it be that home health workers at the front lines of care for the elderly and infirm can’t earn a paid sick day? We have to take the “kick me” sign off of the backs of these beleaguered workers, because to put it plainly, employers don’t value their sacrifice or service.

A Local 100 organizer was telling me this week about a grievance she handled in Lafayette, Louisiana for a direct care health worker in a nonprofit developmentally disabled facility where we represent hundreds under contract. The worker with seven years of seniority had never taken any of the sick days the contract guaranteed, but in this instance she reported for a mandatory training session and could feel herself losing the battle to the flu or some bug while there. In one of her trips to the restroom she called her supervisor on her cell, and said she was going to have to take a sick day. For her trouble, she found herself suspended rather than granted one of the sick days she had earned. When the supervisors realized that she was calling from the training session, they confronted her and told her that if she could be at the session, she could complete the day, and she was suspended for lying about her condition.

In the grievance hearing with the executive director, when it got to that point, our union representative asked what was the supposed lie our member was accused of? The supervisor said they had talked to the nurse running the training session and she did not remember our worker having to leave the session repeatedly. At that point our organizer said, “Are you really telling me that with a guaranteed sick leave policy that requires no doctor’s note to get a sick day and for a worker that has never taken a sick day in seven years, that what we are really grieving is how many times she went to the bathroom?” The Executive Director shook his head and apologetically said, “Yes, that seems to be what we’re saying.”

Sure, we’ll win this grievance and the worker’s suspension will be erased, and she’ll get an apology, which she pretty much got from the big boss at the hearing, but my point is that both good bosses and bad bosses in our current work culture just automatically assume that missing work for sickness is almost always lying and malingering, thereby risking the health of their workers and their own clients for that matter.

And that’s where public policy needs to step up to the statement that, “there ought to be a law,” with a response that is in the affirmative, because employers on their own don’t get it.