Paid Sick Days Legislation Advances in Municipalities, But Many Workers Across the U.S. Still Lack Access

parent doctor with childBy Caroline Dobuzinskis and Jasmin Griffin

At the local level, there have been two remarkable victories for paid sick days this week. On Wednesday, Portland, Oregon, became the fourth city in the United States to provide paid sick days to its workers, after the city council voted unanimously to approve the “Protected Sick Time” bill. Philadelphia followed closely behind, with its city council approving the city’s paid sick days bill 11-6 on Thursday. However, the Philadelphia bill is likely to be vetoed by Mayor Michael Nutter and needs 12 votes to override.

The advancement of earned sick days legislation is good news for communities and, although critics say otherwise, it’s also good news for businesses and taxpayers. According to IWPR research, released this month, Portland’s paid sick days law will help save the city’s employers more than $13 million per year and will also reduce health care costs. In Philadelphia, the bill “Promoting Healthy Families and Workplaces,” will bring a total savings of $52 million annually to businesses with nearly half a million in net savings to employers. These savings are largely due to reduced costs in turnover, reduced contagion in the workplace, and increased productivity.

Portland’s law requires private sector employers with six or more employees to provide one hour of accrued paid sick time for every 30 hours of work.  In Philadelphia, workers at businesses with 11 or more employees earn up to seven days per year, and those at smaller bus

inesses (six to ten employees) earn a maximum of four. In Portland, workers in businesses with fewer than six employees can earn up to five unpaid sick days per year; whereas in Philadelphia, workers for businesses with fewer than five employees are not covered.

Earned sick days laws provide workers with the opportunity to care for themselves or a family member in the event of illness. IWPR research has found that workers who have this provision have better self-reported health. According to both Portland and Philadelphia’s bills, earned sick time can also be used for preventative care, for example to visit their doctor during business hours, and to seek services in the case of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking. Under Portland’s new law, time may also be used in the event that a public official closes a school or place of business due to a public health emergency.

In Portland, currently only private sector employees who work an excess of 240 hours per calendar year are eligible for sick time. But many are pushing to have the state of Oregon adopt a earned sick time law, as well. Across the country, momentum is building behind paid sick days campaigns at the local and state levels. At the national level, Representative Rosa DeLauro and Senator Tom Harkin plan to introduce the Healthy Families Act in both the House and Senate sometime next week. The act would require that U.S. employers with 15 employees or more provide up to seven paid sick days per year to their workers. Evidence suggests that workers  do not abuse paid sick days policies and those who currently working for employers who provide them use only use two to three sick days, on average, in a given year. Having additional days can help workers who experience a health crisis themselves or have one in their family.

While many employees are provided paid sick days, low-income and part-time employees are less likely to have paid sick leave. This makes access to paid sick days of particular importance to women, who are more likely to work in those types of jobs and are now make up two-thirds of breadwinners or co-breadwinners in families.

Globally, this type of worker protection is not exceptional. According to a study by McGill University, paid sick days for short-term and long-term illnesses are provided for in at least 145 countries, 136 of which provide a week or more every year. IWPR research has found that paid sick days could save the nation up to $1 billion in unnecessary health care costs due to reduced emergency department visits. IWPR estimates that overall health care costs will be reduced by approximately $15.6 million annually in Portland and $10.3 million annually in Philadelphia, as a result of reduced emergency department use.

To the benefit of businesses and local economies, workers with paid sick days tend to be more loyal to employers. This means businesses don’t have to spend time and money finding and training a replacement when a worker leaves for a job with more benefits or to care for themselves or a family member. Research has shown that workers who experience a health care crisis are also more likely to return to their employer if they have a paid leave—more than twice as likely, in the case of women with heart disease. The reduced turnover costs-savings comes hand-in-hand with the added advantage that paid sick days bring to overall worker productivity. Sick workers only work at about half their normal productivity and this phenomenon, called presenteeism, costs businesses millions each year.

From a public health perspective, paid sick days reduce the spread of contagion between coworkers and customers alike, which could slow the spread of illness and limit the severity of epidemics—such as the spread of the flu that we saw just this winter. In 2009, according to IWPR estimates, as many as 7 million people were infected with H1N1 due to contact with a sick coworker.  Anyone who stops by a café or restaurant for a cup of coffee or a sandwich can be put at risk since only 23 percent of food service workers in the United States have access to paid sick days.

If the laws receive mayoral approval, Portland and Philadelphia will join other municipalities that now protect the safety and health of workplaces, schools, health care facilities, and communities through access to paid sick days. The bad news is that millions of workers across the country still lack this important benefit. The gains to all from paid sick days can no longer be discounted based on unfounded costs to business.

Caroline Dobuzinskis is the Communications Manager with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Jasmin Griffin is a Research Intern with IWPR. 

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