Workers deserve paid sick leave

Yet some Pennsylvania legislators not only don’t like it, they want to stop local governments from guaranteeing it, writes social scientist Diana Polson

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State Rep. Seth Grove of York County and corporate lobbyists want Pennsylvania to pass a law that would stop local governments from guaranteeing employees access to paid sick days. Pennsylvanians’ message for representatives considering this bill should be: Don’t preempt progress.

The United States is the only one of the richest 22 countries that does not guarantee workers paid sick leave. In Pennsylvania, nearly 40 percent of private-sector workers, most low-income, have zero paid sick days.

Nationally, most low-wage workers go without paid sick days — many employed in jobs that come into frequent contact with customers, including food service, hotel, child-care and nursing-home workers. When workers get sick, they must choose between staying home to care for themselves without pay — often risking dismissal — and going to work sick — risking others’ health.

Guaranteeing earned sick leave not only benefits workers; it improves public health. It boosts the economy by encouraging businesses to partner with, not squeeze, their employees. Offering paid sick days has proven to increase employee loyalty and reduce turnover costs, saving businesses money. This means employees are more productive and businesses more profitable, thus pumping more money into the economy.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the spread of seasonal flus due to a lack of earned sick days costs businesses $10.4 billion every year. A National Health survey found that workers with earned sick leave are more likely to get screened for cancer. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that workers with earned sick leave were 28 percent less likely to have nonfatal occupational injuries than those without.

Earned sick leave has broad, bipartisan support. A 2012 national survey found that 86 percent of voters, including 73 percent of Republicans, say it is important for the president and Congress to consider laws that would require earned sick leave and paid family and medical leave.

There is a growing national movement in support of paid sick days. Six cities — Jersey City, N.J.; New York; San Francisco; Seattle, Wash.; Portland, Ore. and Washington, D.C. — as well as the state of Connecticut have enacted earned-sick-leave legislation, and campaigns for similar laws are underway in a number of other states and cities.

Big corporate interests and conservative legislators have responded to this growing movement by advocating state laws that block local governments from passing paid leave, stopping democracy in its tracks.

Wisconsin kicked off this reactionary wave in 2011. Gov. Scott Walker pushed through legislation outlawing a Milwaukee earned-sick-leave law enacted in 2008 by a 70 percent vote. At the American Legislative Exchange Council 2011 conference, the National Restaurant Association offered Mr. Walker’s law as model legislation for other states. Since then, 10 states have passed versions of these preemption laws: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Tennessee.

While preempting local earned-sick-leave laws is part of a national strategy, the list of early adopters underscores that it fits neatly into a Southern state strategy that is a disaster for economic opportunity.

Harvard and Berkeley economists recently documented that most of these Southern states sit near the very bottom of upward-mobility rankings because their low-income children nearly always become low-income adults. Pittsburgh and other Western Pennsylvania regions have mobility rankings near the top of the pack. But if we block communities from enacting forward-looking labor standards, Pittsburgh could start slipping toward the bottom, too.

The arguments made against earned-sick-leave — increased costs for businesses — mirror those made a century ago against child-labor, health, safety and minimum-wage laws. How did those labor standards become national law, earning acceptance as the cornerstones of humane and productive economies? Because enlightened local communities had the freedom to lead their states and their nation.

Allowing local communities to demonstrate the substantial payback that accompanies high social standards — for employers, communities and working families — is how America progressed from the 19th to the 20th century. It now is the way to move into the 21st century.

Supporters of preemption should not be permitted to turn back the clock. Local communities should retain the freedom to take the high road to better health, a better society and a more vibrant economy.


Diana Polson is a consultant to the Keystone Research Center and lives in Point Breeze (dianapolson@yahoo.com).

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