Chamber Scoffs At Lack Of Paid Sick Leave: ‘The Problem Is Not Nearly As Great As Some People Say’

Randel Johnson, senior v.p. for labor, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Randel Johnson, senior v.p. for labor, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

When the H1N1 virus initially broke out back in April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advocated that workers who contracted the illness stay home, a call which it has consistently repeated since then. However, the New York Times noted today that public health experts are worried about the continued spread of H1N1, as workers who deal with the public are “reporting to work sick because they do not get paid for days they miss for illness.”

Partially in reaction to the problems posed by H1N1, Congress is considering the Healthy Families Act — sponsored by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and currently sporting 113 co-sponsors — which would mandate that employers with more than 15 employees provide some paid sick leave. “Sometimes you talk about legislation in the abstract, but this is making people begin to understand the problem,” DeLauro said.

However, the Chamber of Commerce doesn’t seem to understand at all:

“The vast majority of employers provide paid leave of some sort,” said Randel K. Johnson, senior vice president for labor at the United States Chamber of Commerce. “The problem is not nearly as great as some people say. Lots of employers work these things out on an ad hoc basis with their employees.”

Actually, almost 50 percent of private-sector workers in the U.S. have no paid sick days. A survey last year by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found that “68 percent of those not eligible for paid sick days said they had gone to work with a contagious illness like the flu.”

And this is a problem that disproportionately affects lower-income workers, 76 percent of whom have no paid sick leave. This includes 86 percent of food service workers and 78 percent of hotel workers, even though they, arguably, are most able to spread disease. As Ann O’Leary and Karen Kornbluh wrote in The Shriver Report: A Women’s Nation Changes Everything, “too often, most low- and many moderate-wage workers cannot access even the minimum benefits provided to more highly paid workers.”

The U.S. is the only developed country without a policy mandating some form of paid sick leave, while lost productivity due to sick workers attending work and infecting other employees costs the U.S. economy $180 billion annually. And the National Partnership for Women and Families actually found that “while a paid sick days policy would impose modest costs, the estimated business savings total $11.69 per week per worker from lower turnover, improved productivity and reduced spread of illness.”

So, in addition to catching us up with the rest of the world, mandated paid sick leave could be good for business. But the Chamber prefers to overlook low-income workers and real economic benefits in order to advocate for the perceived interests of large employers.