Push by workers for paid sick days gathers steam
BOSTON (AP) — For a majority of Americans, a sick day is just that — a day to stay home, rest up and get better before returning to work. But supporters of a Massachusetts ballot question say for many low-income workers, getting sick means losing pay and perhaps even their jobs.
If approved by voters, the proposal would allow workers to accrue up to 40 hours of paid sick time in a given year, earning one hour for every 30 hours they put in. Companies with ten or fewer employees would be exempted, as would those with equally or more generous sick leave policies in place.
While sponsors say it would be the nation’s strongest sick time law, business groups view it as a short-sighted, one-size-fits-all approach that ignores economic realities facing many employers.
Workers could take time off to care for themselves or a sick family member, though employers could demand a doctor’s note for absences longer than three days.
Gabrielle Monteiro, 23, of New Bedford, said she once felt pressured by a supervisor to go to her job at a Laundromat just hours after being treated for a lung infection in a hospital emergency room.
“It was obvious that I was sick,” said Monteiro, now a student at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and a volunteer for Raise Up Massachusetts, a coalition of unions and community groups spearheading the November ballot drive.
“If this law were in place, I think people would be able to take the time they need for themselves or their loved one without running the risk of threats or being fired,” she said.
According to the most recent estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 61 percent of private sector workers receive paid sick time. But the numbers vary dramatically based on type of employment and average earnings, with managerial and office workers twice as likely to have paid sick leave as those in the service industry.
Among the top 10 percent of wage earners, nearly 9 in 10 had paid sick time; among the lowest ten percent, only 1 in 5 could say the same.
California Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed a law that would require most employers to provide up to three sick days a year. Connecticut, the only other state with a paid sick leave law, exempts businesses with fewer than 50 employees. Several cities, including New York, also have laws in effect.
Advocates frame it as an “economic justice” issue, paired with recent efforts to boost the minimum wage nationally and in states. It takes barely three unpaid sick days to threaten the ability of a typical low-wage worker to afford groceries, rent and other necessities, said Vicki Shabo, vice president of the National Partnership for Women & Families.
Opponents in Massachusetts contend a paid sick time law would dump another expensive mandate on small businesses.
While employers in office settings can generally cover for sick workers without bringing in additional staff, the same is not true for many small businesses, including some who might be required by law to maintain certain staffing levels, according to Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts.
Those companies would have to pay both the sick worker and a replacement, he said.
“Where the real concerns lie is with small businesses that don’t have the ability and frankly don’t have the flexibility and financial wherewithal to really absorb all of the costs that we are looking at here,” said Hurst.
The measure could also have implications for taxpayers, opponents note, since the Massachusetts proposal — unlike the California law — would not exempt home health care aides who often work for state-funded contractors.
Deb Fastino, co-chair of Raise Up Massachusetts — which led a successful effort to boost the state’s hourly minimum wage from $8 to $11 over the next three years — counters that a sick time requirement would benefit businesses by reducing employee turnover and contagion.
“We all know when people go in sick, they’re not very productive,” Fastino said.