When you get sick, you shouldn’t need to worry about losing pay or even your job. It seems like a simple concept. And, for most professionals who have such a benefit, many assume that the ability to do so is standard. But the United States is the only country among 22 developed nations that doesn’t guarantee the right to paid leave if someone falls ill or has to care for a sick family member. Forty-one million people in the country don’t have access to paid sick leave.
That has changed in a few places around the country: seven cities and one state have passed paid sick leave laws, ensuring workers can earn time off. This new right has a profound impact on the lives of those workers. But that impact also has ripple effects. It transforms relationships between employers and employees – and between workers and the rest of society.
Changing Workers’ Lives
Felix Trinidad’s story illustrates some of the worst outcomes when workers can’t get paid leave. In 2012, Trinidad, 34, was diagnosed with stomach cancer while working in a New York City supermarket that didn’t offer paid sick days. He was putting in 12-hour days, six days a week, and kept working through it for fear of missing out on a day’s pay. He eventually died. His wife, Anastacia Gonzalez, says paid sick days might have saved him. “He would have been better…because he wouldn’t have had to worry to so much about having to miss work,” she told the New York Daily News. New York City residents will soon be able to avoid that fate, as a paid sick days law passed in July last year and will go into effect on April 1.
Workers, particularly those at the low end of the wage scale in service sector jobs, could benefit from a lot of changes: a higher minimum wage, better health care, more stable schedules. But paid sick days often top the list of things they’d most like to see in their workplaces. In a survey of women living in poverty or right on the edge, nearly 90 percent said this leave would be “very useful.” It is the number one policy they said would give them a leg up, ahead of an increase in wages or other benefits.
That’s how workers at the Seattle Tacoma airport feel. Voters in their area recently passed a measure to give them a $15 minimum wage and paid sick days, although it is currently being fought over in court. But as Abdirahman Abdullah, who works at the airport, told ThinkProgress at the time the measure was approved, paid leave “is more important than even $15” an hour, because it means he wouldn’t risk getting penalized or fired if he calls in sick for himself or to care for his two children. Roxan Seibel, who has worked at the airport for 30 years while raising two children as a single mother, described throwing up over garbage cans at work because she couldn’t afford to lose a day’s pay.
Balancing The Household
The law could also bring some welcome changes in caregiving roles. We know that paid family leave, when it includes men, leads to more men taking time off to care for and spend time with their new children, adjusting expectations around caregiving and which workers will pause their jobs for family. Because paid sick days are universal, applying to both men and women, and nontransferable between a mother and a father, it also encourages men to also take time off when a child or other family member is sick. “If neither parent has paid sick days, whoever makes less money is likely to be the one who takes the day off, and that’s likely to be mom,” said Sarah Jane Glynn, associate director of women’s economic policy at the Center for American Progress.
But in San Francisco, where workers are guaranteed five days of leave, while more women took a paid sick day to be with a child – 24 percent of women versus 16.3 percent of men – more men took a day to care for an adult, 18.7 percent compared to 13 percent of women. When men take time off to care for family members, it helps alleviate the stigma and penalties women face when they do the same. “The motherhood wage penalty would essentially disappear if we got men to be equally involved in family life,” Glynn said. “Paid sick days are one component of that.”
Guaranteed paid leave reinforces “the idea of caregiving and taking care of oneself as a value and a norm, standardized across gender,” Vicki Shabo, director of work and family programs at the National Partnership for Women & Families, added.
Paid sick days also signal something more broadly about our country’s values. “They normalize in the culture the idea that people should be able to take time to care for themselves,” Shabo said. “People taking care of themselves and loved ones, whether to get preventative care or be there in an emergency, is a value, and public policy helps drive those values.”
But employees aren’t the only ones who see a profound shift once they’re able to take paid sick leave.
Employers, from small business owners to behemoths like the National Restaurant Association, are often wary of passing these laws, worried that the costs will be too much to bear or that there will be rampant abuse. But once paid sick leave is in place, that all changes.
Joe Fugere, the owner of Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria, which has five locations in the Seattle area and about 200 employees, is not necessarily a raging progressive. He belongs to both the liberal Main Street Alliance as well as the conservative Washington Restaurant Association, which has fought paid sick leave legislation. While he generally supports increasing the minimum wage, he’s concerned about the effort to raise his city’s to $15 an hour. And when the city first began to debate passing a paid sick leave law, which it passed in 2011, he was worried that some of his fellow small business owners wouldn’t be able to weather the cost, particularly after a bruising recession.
But he has seen firsthand what paid time off can offer his workers. The city’s debate over paid sick days gave him a “nudge” to implement his own policy. He said he looked at what it would cost his business if all of his employees took all the time available to them. “The impact on revenue was to the tune of about half of one percent.” He instituted paid time off – to be used whenever needed, without a doctor’s note. “It turns out that our calculations were just about right,” he noted.
And then the benefits flowed in. “If you ask me how I feel a year later, I feel more positive than I did going in because it feels so good,” he said. He recounts how one employee hadn’t seen his family in Arizona for six years because he didn’t have the paid time off to visit, but with the paid time off he was able to do just that. Another worker was previously worried he couldn’t take time off to get married but was able to do it with the new policy. “It’s not about paying them,” Fugere said. “It’s watching their lives changing because they have extra time to spend with their families.”
This shift from concern to celebration can be seen, writ large, in communities that have had paid sick leave laws on the books. While potential laws are being debated, big business groups like the National Restaurant Association, Employment Policies Institute, and often local Chambers of Commerce come out against them, and the business owners who are members react to that.
“These people are very busy running their businesses,” Eileen Appelbaum, senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, said. “They don’t have any reason to doubt it and they feel very concerned.” But then the laws take effect, “and it is overwhelmingly a nonevent for employers.” When she and fellow researcher Ruth Milkman surveyed employers in Connecticut, they found that “everything they were worried about, that workers would take all the time available, employees would abuse it, did not happen,” she said.
Only 11 percent of Connecticut’s businesses had costs increase by 3 percent or more, their study found, while about two-thirds said there was either no cost or a small one. The vast majority said there were no cases of abuse. In fact, while the law provides workers with five paid sick days a year, on average they use just four. Half of them used three days or fewer, and a third didn’t take any at all. “It’s not that you give workers a paid sick day and they run out and use every single one,” Appelbaum noted. “From the point of view of employees, these paid sick days are a form of insurance,” and workers hold on to them in case they need them in the future.
Given that their fears didn’t pan out, three-quarters of the state’s employers support the law a year and a half later. Forty percent are “very supportive.”
The same things have happened in San Francisco, which has had paid sick leave since 2007. The median worker takes three paid sick days a year despite being afforded five. Six out of seven employers didn’t report a negative effect on their profitability from the law. Two out of three are now supportive, with a third that is “very supportive.”
The data from Connecticut points to important benefits for employers. About 30 percent of the state’s businesses reported improved morale and 15 percent reported improved productivity thanks to the paid sick leave law. It also increased motivation and loyalty. One human resource manager told Appelbaum and Milkman that “the law ties into retention and turnover in a positive way.”
This could have a profound impact on how employers interact with their employees in the lower wage sectors that are less likely to have paid leave. The realization that offering these kinds of benefits doesn’t lead to high costs or abuse could “influence the kind of assumptions employers make about their workers,” Ariane Hegewisch, study director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, said. When employers worry about abuse, they are implying “we cannot trust our workers,” she said.
But once workers start accruing paid leave, employers may change their minds completely. Given that three-quarters of business owners in Connecticut now support the law, “I do think their minds were changed,” Appelbaum said. In San Francisco, more than a quarter of workers said that their employers became more supportive of them taking a paid sick day after the law went into effect.
Center for American Progress’s Sarah Jane Glynn was a bit more doubtful that there would is a wholesale transformation among employers. Initial concerns “tend to be very hypothetical,” she said, and not focused per se on an employer’s actual employees. “That makes me not entirely convinced they’ll change their minds” if their own employees don’t take advantage of the benefits, she said. Still, requiring employers to increase benefits can make them confront the returns on investment. “I think if business owners are forced to do nice things for their workers and they see that it boosts morale and productivity, they’re more likely to support those kinds of policies in the future and to voluntarily make changes,” she said. It’s hard to convince them the benefits will be real without that lived experience.
But the benefits are real, whether employers believe in them or not. For Jim Houser, co-owner of the Hawethorne Auto Clinic in Portland, OR and co-chair of the Main Street Alliance of Oregon, retaining his highly skilled employees with decent benefits has been the strategy since his business opened 31 years ago. “The average tenure of our full-time staff is 16 years,” he said, adding, “I think it’s in large measure due to benefits like paid sick days.” The shop offers five days a year, although his employees only take two and a half days on average. Meanwhile, providing the days costs him “considerably less than one percent of payroll.”
And the returns are great. “In my opinion it is one of the best values, one of the best bangs for the buck that you can offer because the cost is so little, and yet when combined with other things, it seems to pay off in employee loyalty,” he said. The company doesn’t have to spend time and money on recruiting, hiring, or training new employees. It also helps build trust – an important thing in an environment where decisions about expensive equipment are made every day.
Fugere has also seen this benefit at his pizza shop. He sends out hand-written cards to employees on their anniversaries of being with the company. This month’s list has a handful of people hitting ten years of working with him, plus others at the five, three, and two-year marks. “It’s really heartwarming and encouraging to see the number of people celebrating anniversaries,” he said.
Solidarity With Your Barista
While not everyone is guaranteed a paid sick day in this country, Americans, particularly those who do get the benefit from their employers, don’t necessarily realize this. “If you look at polling on paid sick days here in the U.S.,” Hegewisch said, “people say, ‘We don’t’ have this already? I thought this was standard.’” A 2008 poll from the University of Chicago found that 77 percent of Americans think having paid sick days is very important for the country’s workers and a majority sees them as a basic workplace standard and right.
But the campaign to spread the right to take a paid sick day could highlight that this isn’t the case, potentially creating “a solidarity culture,” in Hegewisch’s words. Much of this is about class. A recent analysis from IWPR found that the more you make, the more likely you are to have access to paid sick days. More than 80 percent of people who make $65,000 a year and above can take a paid day off if they fall ill. By contrast, just 28 percent of those who make under $20,000 enjoy the same right.
Making sure all workers, regardless of how much they earn, get this benefit, on the other hand, “levels the playing field,” Glynn said. Granting the kinds of benefits currently enjoyed by chief executives and professional workers could create a cultural shift in how society values other workers. In our consumer economy, everyone comes in contact daily with a service worker who likely doesn’t get a paid sick day, from whoever prepares your coffee to the person who cares for your child to the person who cleans your office. “I think it really does start to change the way we think about those jobs when you start giving better wages and better benefits,” she said. Granting these workers the same benefits you enjoy could change the way you see them. “There is something humanizing about this,” she said.
And paid sick leave laws create a whole new workplace standard, lifting the floor for all workers. “It’s almost like Social Security in that sense,” Hegewisch said. “It’s a basic standard, nobody should fall below it, and it benefits everybody.” And it represents a significant update to the standards regulating work. “When is the last time we passed a significant labor law?” Glynn asked. “We haven’t updated our laws since the 1930s in terms of something that would impact a huge swath of workers.”
Even more important, perhaps, is that it is provided by employers themselves without any contribution from workers or the government. “One thing that I think is really distinct about this is the recognition that this is something your employer owes you, not something you should be paying for yourself,” Glynn noted.
This is all particularly notable given how difficult it has been to get workers better standards at work. The minimum wage hasn’t been raised in four years, and wages keep falling while corporate profits soar. National paid family leave still feels like a dream. Only 11 percent of workers belong to a union, the lowest level since the Great Depression.
But the fight for paid sick days marches on. Eight states are home to serious pushes to be the next Connecticut in guaranteeing paid leave, and other cities are vying to join the ranks as well. If any of them succeed, it will give working residents a little more breathing room. Meanwhile, the rest of us will keep feeling the effects of the little policy that could.