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Your job – or your health?

Eileen Appelbaum //October 12, 2011//

Your job – or your health?

Eileen Appelbaum //October 12, 2011//

Recent national job reports show slow improvements in the labor market, with employment gains evenly divided between an increase in hires and a decline in layoffs and firings. In a job market still facing challenges, reducing the number of workers who are laid off or fired is essential to building a healthier labor market, strengthening the economic recovery and spreading its benefits.

Paid sick days, which is on the Denver ballot as Initiative 300, is one policy that will help employers keep workers in jobs and help fight back unemployment.

Job retention is as important as job creation in getting our economy back on track. That’s why it’s critical to have a better understanding of the policies that will help employers keep workers in jobs, including paid sick day policies. Too many workers still face an impossible choice: to take off from work to care for themselves or their kids when illness strikes and risk losing their jobs and much-needed income, or risk their health, the health of their children and the heath of the people they work with and serve by coming into work.

Take Patricia Hughes, a home health care nurse without paid sick days. To be able to pay her rent and buy groceries, she is often forced to come into work sick despite risking the health of the elders she cares for. What’s worse is that when she did stay home sick with pneumonia and a 104-degree fever, she was fired.

And Patricia is not alone. A surprisingly high two out of every five private sector workers, and four out of five low-wage workers, have no paid sick days at all in their jobs. That’s 107,000 people in Denver – 41 percent of the workforce – who do not have a single paid sick day. And most workers who do have paid sick days can’t use them to care for a sick child.

Everyone gets the flu or a cold at some point, but too often, workers without sick days, like Patricia, get fired for taking the day off. The cost of these preventable firings not only hits the pocketbooks of individual families, but of our entire economy as more people are forced out of work.

Indeed, just as counterproductive and costly, many workers engage in “presentee-ism,” when they work despite being ill. Not only are they working at sub-par performance when they are on the job while sick, but they are also affecting other employees when their illness is contagious which further impacts productivity as more workers get sick. Researchers have estimated the cost of presentee-ism to be 1.8 times the costs of absenteeism.

And there is also a health cost associated with presentee-ism. Many of the people that we interact with on a daily basis – 72 percent of the workers at the restaurants and delis where we buy lunch, many of the childcare workers who take our kids and the health care workers who support our older parents and loved ones – do not have paid sick days.

That’s why paid sick days is one policy that’s gaining support here in Denver and across the country from public health advocates, small businesses and workers as a solution to address turnover and improve employee retention.

And Denver’s not alone in considering paid sick days. Connecticut passed a paid sick days bill in June, Seattle in early September added to the successful laws in San Francisco and Washington, DC. Massachusetts and cities including New York and Philadelphia are actively considering legislation that would provide sick days to workers.

Learning from the experience of other cities that have adopted these laws, elected leaders concerned with improving workers’ productivity and job retention see this reform as an important way to help workers without hurting businesses.

Despite false claims by business lobbyists, a recent study evaluating the paid sick days law in San Francisco found that six in seven employers say that paid sick days have had no negative effect on profitability or businesses growth and two-thirds of employers surveyed support the law. Other studies have shown that employees are healthier and more productive when they have access to paid sick days. Business owners’ fears of coverage problems or cost escalation appear to be unfounded.

As the government jobs report shows, the recovery is still too weak to support robust hiring by employers. Workers who are fired for not showing up on the job when they are too sick to get out of bed will not be readily replaced. The employer may choose to leave the position vacant until the recovery gathers strength. Advocates have long argued that access to paid sick days so a worker can stay home and recover from the flu or care for a child with a high fever is more important when the job market is weak.

Ballot Initiative 300 for paid sick days is the kind of policy we should be promoting to improve employee retention, minimize layoffs, improve work-life integration, encourage re-joining the work force and help our local labor market and economy recover. Voters in Denver should vote yes on 300.
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