You wake up one morning with those telltale signs: achy limbs, chills, persistent coughing.
Do you a) call your boss and say that you won’t make it in today or b) report to work because you don’t have paid sick days?
If you answered b), you’re one of the third of civilian workers — at least 234,000 in Maine alone — who’d benefit if Congress does the right thing and passes a proposal requiring businesses to allow up to seven paid sick days a year.
Paid sick time is both a social justice issue and a pragmatic one. On the social justice side, forcing workers to choose between their health and their income shows callous disregard for them as people. On the practical side, the productivity of an ailing employee is likely to take a dive, even as the chances increase that he or she will infect co-workers, customers or both.
Maine already has tried to tackle this issue at the state level. Three years ago, a paid sick-leave proposal went through several iterations before ultimately being killed in the House.
Passage of a national sick-leave bill would address one of the primary concerns raised in Augusta in 2010: that mandating paid time off would hurt Maine’s ability to attract and retain businesses. If every business across the country had to pick up the same cost, however, then the playing field would be level. When deciding whether to move to or stay in Maine, whether another state mandates paid sick time simply wouldn’t be a factor.
As well, criticism of paid sick time makes a big assumption: that paid sick time is solely a money-losing proposition for employers. Yes, employers would have to pay more in wages, payroll taxes and administrative expenses to employees. But research shows they’d also save money.
Productivity would be higher: People who are feverish and hacking tend to lose their focus on the job but are paid full wages despite reduced effort. Turnover would be lower: People who get paid sick time are less likely to quit, saving employers money they’d otherwise spend on hiring and training new employees.
Finally, the community as a whole would benefit. Employees without paid sick days are more likely to go to work with a contagious illness and send a sick child to school or day care — thus infecting not only their co-workers and clients but also dozens of other people. They’re also more likely to turn to the emergency room than the doctor’s office for care.
If a national sick-time mandate advances, critics will be ready. But there are many arguments — both moral and practical — in favor of the proposal, and it’s time that they get the spotlight. When contagion strikes, a worker should have a better choice than to wish he worked somewhere that took a more humane and nuanced view of its employees’ well-being.