WASHINGTON – Advising people to stay home from work if they come down with swine flu is, in many cases, like advising them to take a pay cut.
That’s because 34 percent of U.S. workers don’t get paid sick leave, according to the Labor Department. Among part-time workers, it’s 72 percent.
"When you are struggling to figure how to pay the rent or make the car payment, what’s the responsible thing to do?” asks Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families. Ness and members of other liberal advocacy groups are lobbying Congress for a law that would require employers to provide paid sick leave.
Legislation to accomplish that has sponsors in the House and Senate, and the Senate health committee will discuss the issue at a hearing this fall on preparedness for the H1N1 virus, according to a committee spokeswoman. But sick-leave legislation probably won’t come up for a vote this year because health care reform is taking up so much time.
San Francisco, Milwaukee and Washington, D.C., have laws requiring paid sick leave, and campaigns for similar laws are under way in other cities and at least 15 states. The New York City Council will hold a hearing on a proposed ordinance next month.
"We have been saying for a long time how urgently needed this is,” Ness said. "We said it before the H1N1 virus was so common in people’s lives, and we will be saying this after the H1N1 virus plays itself out.”
Art Price, who runs a family-owned Roto-Rooter Plumbing and Drain Cleaning Service in Binghamton, N.Y., offers four paid sick days a year to his nine employees after they have been on the job for six months. They can qualify for the sick days earlier if they’ve completed their training. Price said he will make accommodations in special situations because he knows his workers don’t abuse their benefits.
"The biggest thing is, don’t tell me how to run my business,” Price said . "We’re supposed to be a system of free enterprise in this country. I am in favor of properly supporting the employees. In my mind, that includes paid sick leave.”
Lack of paid sick time will come into even sharper focus if school closings are widespread during peak flu season early next year. "Parents don’t get excused from their responsibilities just because they are difficult,” said Jody Siegle, executive director of the Monroe County School Board Association, which represents 21 New York school districts.
But trying to solve the problem with legislation would create a costly government mandate for something best handled informally between employers and workers, according to the National Federation of Independent Business, the nation’s largest trade organization representing small businesses.
"I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an employer in New York who has an employee who comes down with the swine flu and says, ‘You’d better get your butt into work,”’ said Mike Elmendorf, director of the New York chapter of NFIB. ”Employers are close to their employees, and when their employees have situations, they do their best to accommodate those situations.”
That wasn’t the case for 36-year-old Guillermo Barrera,** fired Sept. 18 from his job as a cook at a Brooklyn luncheonette after he got sick. Barrera spent three days in the hospital but still lost his job. "I feel bad,” Barrera recalled telling his boss when he was overcome with body shivering and shaking. "And she did nothing.”
Barrera’s former boss, Athina Skermo, told the New York Daily News she didn’t know he was going to the hospital. "He just left me flat," she told the newspaper.
Many low-wage workers can’t afford to take a sick day and lose pay, said Andrew Friedman, executive director of Make the Road New York, a New York City advocacy group for immigrant workers. He estimates that as many as 1 million New York City workers don’t get paid sick leave, including 90 percent of restaurant employees.
"There’s an enormous financial incentive to do what is the worst for the public health, which is report for work when they are sick,” said Friedman.
Who gets paid sick leave
-66 percent of all workers
-28 percent of part-time workers
-77 percent of full-time workers
-61 percent of private industry workers
-89 percent of state and local government employees
-82 percent of union workers
-63 percent of non-union workers
-84 percent of teachers
-86 percent of management workers and professionals
Source: March 2009 National Compensation Survey by the U.S. Labor Department
**Make the Road New York member