Paid sick leave: Setback in Philly, progress elsewhere

Yesterday, the Philadelphia City Council fell one vote short of overriding Mayor Michael Nutter's veto of legislation that would have required businesses with more than five employees to let workers earn paid sick leave. This was the second time the Council had passed a paid sick leave bill, only to have it vetoed.

The news for workers was better in New York City late last month, when legislators reached a compromise: a paid sick leave law that will only apply to businesses with at least 15 employees, but that nonetheless will provide this important benefit to an estimated one million workers who currently lack it.

The New York breakthrough came after City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn resisted action on the bill for three years. This prompted a Salon piece from Randy Lobasso entitled "Paid sick leave: The next liberal litmus test?" Lobasso suggests paid sick leave is now "a must-support issue for ambitious Democrats across the nation." Last month, Portland, Oregon became the fourth US jurisdiction to require employers to offer paid sick leave; the state of Connecticut and the cities of San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, DC all have paid sick leave laws, although DC's includes a problematic exemption of tipped restaurant workers.

Washington Post columnist Jena McGregor considers reasons why the issue seems to be gaining traction:

For one, the struggling economy has put new emphasis on the challenges low-wage workers face when they have to call in sick and their pay suffers as a result. In addition, the recent celebration of the Family and Medical Leave Act’s 20th anniversary, Ness says, was a reminder to lawmakers of the impact of similar measures. And now that initiatives have been in place for a few years in some locales — San Francisco was first, in 2007, and Connecticut passed its legislation in 2011 — supporters say the results have helped to shape others’ opinion. “None of the ‘sky is falling’ horror stories have come to pass,” Ness says.

More than 80% of low-wage workers lack paid sick days, so they're stuck making a difficult choice between missing a day of pay and staying home to recover from an illness or care for a family member. Also in the Washington Post, Katrina vanden Heuvel writes:

More than 40 million Americans — disproportionately low-income, black and Latino workers — cook, clean, fold, and ring us up without any paid time off when they or their children are ill. On any given day, these workers must choose between caring for a sick child and their job. They handle our food and our purchases, coughing and sniffling through Kleenex, to avoid being handed a pink slip.

The absence of paid sick leave is a glaring injustice that puts American workers in the distinguished company of workers in Syria, Somalia and North Korea. It’s an affront to our values and the dignity of a hard day’s work. And it’s a drag on our families, our businesses, and our society.

Maybe this issue is gaining traction because it seems like common sense to most of the public that people should be able to stay home from work when they're sick.

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When this passed in Seattle I was amazed that my employer (big company, mostly salaried) had to hand out a few extra sick days to get us up to the city standards. Either my bosses were stingy or the new city regs are reasonably generous (to a person without children).

By JustaTech (not verified) on 12 Apr 2013 #permalink

Sorry, as an Australian I don't get this.

Isn't paid sick live a universal right for every worker? It certainly is in my country. Is the USA really that backwards with regard to worker's rights?

Yes, the US is backwards when it comes to paid sick leave. It's treated as a benefit that employers can provide or not -- and many don't. Health insurance has typically also been something that most non-elderly people get through employers, who can offer it or not; fortunately, we're moving toward a system where there are more healthcare options for those who don't have employer-sponsored plans.

Thanks Liz,

Yes, I have been watching the health care debate in the US with some interest (I did live in the US for some time a few years ago), and must admit to being stunned by some of the foolish ideological nature of some of the comments.

Health care here is a universal right, paid from the tax system (we pay a 1.5% tax levy). Everyone in the country has coverage. As an example, last year I was hospitalised on three oocasions - for appendicitis (which required surgery), a condition in my brain which required emergency transportation and several MRIs, and a case of the 'bends' while scuba diving which required 2 sessions in the hyperbaric chamber.

The total cost to me for this was zero. Not a cent. I walked out of the hospitals afterwards without a bill, and even went back afterwards for follow up checks. How much that would have cost in the US is anybody's guess.

As far as sick leave is concerned, I get 10 days paid sick leave every year - cummulative, so that if I don't use it this year it accumulates and I would have 20 days next year. The accumulation is not universal, but the only people in this country who don't get paid sick leave are casual workers.

I pity you living in a country which has so little concern for the health and welfare of its citizens, and gives more rights to corporations than it does to individuals.