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Sick & Forced to Work

For most of us, waking up hot, sweating, dizzy, and feeling like we might throw up prompts a simple phone call to work saying that we’re sick and won’t be in. We may worry about a task not getting done and it may be an affront to our cherished sense of indispensability. But at most the consequences are a jammed up schedule later in the week. We have paid sick days! Our employer, either out of benevolence, a sense of justice, or because of a contract negotiated with our union, has included that among the benefits we receive.

But what many of us feel entitled to is, in fact, a luxury out of reach to vast numbers of American workers. The United States is the only developed nation that does not require all employers to provide paid sick leave. Over forty percent of private sector workers have no paid sick leave. Like so much else in our society, race and class are closely correlated with access to sick days. Sixty-four percent of white workers in Chicago have paid sick days; fifty-seven percent of Black workers have paid sick days; forty-four percent of Hispanic workers get paid sick days. Only twenty-three percent of workers in Chicago who earn less than $20,000 a year have access to paid sick days while eighty percent of workers who earn more than $65,000 can take a day off, with pay, when they are sick.

Many of the consequences of our failure to provide this basic benefit to workers are obvious: workers whose jobs are threatened or lost because they get sick; workers who must choose between getting paid or staying home with a child too sick to go to school or day care; workers whose aging parents are left alone because their children can’t take a day off to care for them when they are sick or in crisis. Other consequences may not be quite so obvious, but they are no less damaging. High on this list are workers who, because they can’t afford a smaller pay check, go to work when they are sick, in turn infecting co-workers. In 2009-2010 during the H1N1 pandemic, the American Public Health Association estimated that 7 million additional individuals were infected and 1,500 deaths occurred because contagious employees did not stay home from work to recover. A study of low wage restaurant workers revealed that over sixty percent of workers admitted to cooking or serving food while sick. Think about that when you next go out to eat.

Some business leaders argue that mandating the provision of paid sick days will hurt the bottom line, reduce wages, lead to layoffs, permit employee abuse, and raise prices to consumers. A recent review by Bloomberg View of studies in three locations that have instituted mandatory paid sick days – Connecticut, San Francisco, and Seattle – found that the feared impact, while present, is actually quite small. In San Francisco, for example, only fourteen percent of businesses surveyed reported that the 2007 law mandating paid sick days had hurt their profitability. In Connecticut only one percent of businesses reported laying off workers as a result of mandatory sick day benefits. Fifteen percent or less of workers in Connecticut and San Francisco reported layoffs or fewer hours. In Connecticut, two thirds of workers used paid sick leave, and the average number of sick days used was three, not the minimum five days available.

In other words, the lack of paid sick days imposes real hardship and suffering on workers and their families and has very concrete public health implications for those who come in contact with employees who are working while sick. And businesses operating in places where they are allowed to deny paid sick days to their employees don’t appear to have a big economic advantage over businesses that are mandated to provide that benefit. So what’s the problem here? Why is our society so short-sighted and so mean spirited?

Since the very beginning the church has concerned itself with healing and with health. Diakonal ministries that provide health care have for centuries been cherished instruments of God’s mission in Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches alike. And our forebears have supported public policies that enhance the health and well-being of all in our society. Paid sick days are now on the political agenda in city halls, state houses, and Congress. The fact that vast numbers of our neighbors who work hard to support their families are denied this benefit is shameful; that it is so often correlated to race and class is an indictment. At issue here is not the science or the economics of the matter. It is the lack of moral will. And that places this issue squarely on the shoulders of the church.

John H. Thomas
February 18, 2015

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