Why businesses, consumers and the economy all benefit when workers get paid sick leave
My mother is the hardest-working person I know. When she was raising me as a single mom, she cut hair, worked at a frozen food plant, waited tables and toiled in a factory – whatever it took to keep food on the table. She worked multiple jobs much of the time and almost never took time off.
I always told myself I’d take her on a nice vacation one day, and when I turned 40, I finally had enough saved. The tickets were bought and we were both excited. A week prior to leaving, I went into my local gym to get a workout in, where I got together with one of my regular workout partners, a gym employee. A few minutes in, my workout partner started coughing.
“Are you sick?” I asked. “Yes,” came the answer, “but I can’t afford to take time off.”
When I think of the more than one million North Carolina workers that don’t even have access to one guaranteed paid sick day, this is what I think of. People need time to take care of themselves and their families as a basic right, but there is also an economic issue here: illness in the workplace has an economic ripple effect.
Research shows that if all workers were provided just seven paid sick days per year, our national economy would experience a net savings of more than $8.1 billion per year. Sometimes it’s hard for people to conceptualize why that happens, but I think the anecdote with my friend the gym worker is a revealing example.
If she can’t afford to leave, she can get me sick. If I get sick, I have to cancel my vacation. This is bad for me – to say nothing of my sainted mother – but also for the airlines, the hotels, and the businesses I would have spent money at if I wasn’t at home recovering from the flu.
And I’m just one person: when workers come in sick, they infect fellow employees as well as customers. Studies show that sick workers on the job cost an average business $255 per employee per year—far more than the cost of giving these workers paid time off.
Think of the gym employee who comes in contact with dozens, maybe hundreds of people each day, or the service industry worker who prepares your food. Do you want that person to feel forced to come in with the norovirus?
The problem extends beyond lack of paid leave (which, as I said, more than one million workers in North Carolina have no opportunity to earn). It extends to even unpaid leave to care for family members.
On the federal level, the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) has, since 1993, allowed workers job-protected, unpaid leave for up to 12 weeks for such circumstances as caring for a newborn or newly adopted child, caring for a seriously ill child, parent or spouse, or recovering from a serious illness. But it doesn’t go far enough, and evidence shows more than half of North Carolina’s workforce doesn’t qualify for unpaid leave under FMLA.
State leaders have the chance to fix these problems this session. The Healthy Families & Workplaces/Paid Sick Days Act (HB 270 and SB 339) would allow workers to earn an hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, and the Caregiver Relief Act (HB 269/SB 337) would expand eligibility for unpaid family medical leave.
Both make economic sense. Turnover costs businesses considerably, and studies suggest that it’s five times cheaper for employers to offer sick leave than it is to hire and train a replacement. Illness is an inevitable reality: how we respond to it is a choice. When a policy response can save businesses money and protect public health, it’s a no-brainer.
It’s time for a new labor standard, one that recognizes people can get sick. By taking these common-sense measures, we can stop the spread of disease while saving businesses money.
After a lifetime of work, my mom has earned the right to enjoy an illness-free vacation. And looking back, I’m sure some of her clients at the hair salon or the restaurant would have appreciated her having access to sick days, too.
Jeff Shaw is the Director of Communications at the North Carolina Justice Center.
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