On Sept. 18, the City Council heard a proposal for an ordinance that would mandate universal paid sick days in Portland.

In the last 17 years of working in restaurants across southern Maine, I have never worked in a place that offered paid sick days. Whenever I or a co-worker (or their child) is sick, we choose between caring for ourselves or our loved ones and being paid. This is a terrible choice for anyone to have to make.

Almost 20,000 people in Portland’s and South Portland’s labor force are employed in the restaurant industry. If we choose to opt for a paycheck and work sick, we are exposing our co-workers and dozens of customers at a time to illness. The lack of access to this basic safety-net policy has the potential to result in a massive public health issue.

Nationally, the American Public Health Association estimates that during the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, there were an additional 5 million cases of influenza directly attributable to the absence of workplace policies, including paid sick days. Moreover, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research has found that universal paid sick days in the U.S. would result in 1.3 million fewer emergency room visits, with an estimated savings of $1.1 billion in health care costs. Huge benefits for a small policy.

In a progressive city with a national reputation for our food and beverage scene, enacting a universal paid sick days ordinance is a small but significant step toward both work with dignity for the numerous employees in the food and hospitality industries, as well as prioritizing the health of all of Portland’s public and the millions of tourists who visit our city each year. If you support this vision, contact your city councilor.

Heather Foran