Saturday, February 20, 2016

Sick politics

Workers in the USA, like those in much of the developed world, don’t have an easy time of it. Economic issues, such as slow wage growth, and the growing gap between those paid the most and those paid the least, get most of the attention. But the USA has other shortcomings, as Vermont has just reminded everyone.

The graphic above was shared on Facebook by ThinkProgress, celebrating that the State of Vermont had just passed legislation giving most workers three days of sick leave—THREE DAYS!—beginning in 2017 and 2018, and going up to five days three years later. “It's a good day to be a Vermonter,” they said.


According to ThinkProgress, the bill covers all employers, but “exempts employees who work less than 18 hours a week or 21 weeks a year, those under the age of 18, and some classes such as seasonal workers and substitute teachers.” In other words, some of the most vulnerable workers will still have no paid sick leave and will have to come into work while they’re sick, or stay home and go without any pay.

The Vermont law, despite the slow implementation and bad carve-outs, is still better than nothing, which is what 40% of American workers have, according to a paper published this month by the Institute for Women's Policy Research:
…40 percent, or over 51 million workers, lack access to paid sick days in their current job. Across racial and ethnic groups, Hispanic workers are much less likely to have paid sick days than non-Hispanic white, Asian, or black workers. Less than half of Hispanic workers (46 percent) in the United States have access to paid sick days… compared with 60 percent of workers overall. Hispanic workers tend to be overrepresented in occupations with low paid sick days access, such as in the service sector.
Vermont is only the fifth state to enact a statewide sick leave entitlement, and the 29th jurisdiction overall (most of the laws are at the city level), as shown in the ThinkProgress graphic below (click to enlarge). Until 2006, there were NO laws in the USA mandating sick leave for workers!

In New Zealand, most workers are entitled to five days sick leave after six months of employment, with an additional five added every 12 months. Unused days carry over to the next year, up to a maximum of 20 days (though individual employment agreements can specify more days per year and higher accumulation limit). Employers are allowed to request proof of illness/injury, but if it’s within the first three days, they must pay the reasonable expenses in getting that proof (this could mean paying the consultation fee of the worker’s doctor, or sending them to a doctor paid by the company).

Employers in the USA sometimes think of providing sick leave as an unnecessary cost, particularly when it’s applied to low-wage workers. If such employers offer the benefit at all, it’s sometimes just to higher-wage workers, especially those considered more critical to the business, or as a means of attracting top talent. Whether this is sort-sighted or good management is a debatable point, but it’s clearly in society’s interest to have mandatory sick leave entitlement for the lowest paid workers. As ThinkProgress put it in their commentary on the IWPR report:
…those who make the lowest incomes and are therefore the least able to take an unpaid day off when they get sick are the least likely to get paid sick leave. Many workers whose professions put them in direct contact with the public, such as personal care providers and food service workers, are also among the least likely to be able to stay home when they’re sick.
Because of this, when there’s an outbreak of a communicable disease in the USA, otherwise healthy members of the general public are put at risk of infection merely because sick low-paid workers can’t afford to take a day off to get better. Add to that the high risk to vulnerable people—children and the elderly in particular—and the lack of mandatory sick leave may be deadly for far more people than just those who lack the entitlement.

Vermont’s law is an important step in the right direction, but it’s only a step. Congress should follow the other countries in the OECD and pass mandatory requirements for sick leave, as well as annual leave including public holidays. That can’t happen in the current Congress, of course, but the need is still there.

The fact that this STILL needs to be acted on in the USA—in the 21st century!—is enough to make anyone feel sick.

Credit: Dylan Petrohilos, ThinkProgress

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