Everyone gets sick, from the common cold to a more serious illness. Recently, my 15-year-old daughter called me after school to tell me she had a bad headache and sore throat. Because my employer provides paid sick days, I was able to leave in the middle of the afternoon and take my daughter for a strep and flu test — no questions asked and no pay docked. Every parent should be able to be there for his or her sick child and have the same level of trust and economic stability that I do.
Yet this is not the case for 40 million workers across our country, including 70 percent of low-wage workers who have the least economic flexibility and need protected paid sick days the most. Many of these are moms and dads of young children, or are children of aging parents, who have to make the agonizing choice between caring for a loved one and paying the rent or keeping a job. That’s not the type of country we aspire to be. Paid sick days should be a moral norm and not a special benefit for some privileged workers. It is hardly surprising that every other developed country in the world has a national paid sick days requirement.
Ancient tradition speaks strongly to valuing workers’ dignity as well as creating the most productive workplace. Religious scholars taught that when an employer says to workers, “I raised your wages in order that you would begin early and stay late,” they may reply, “You raised our wages in order that we would do better work.” From these ancient principles our ancestors derived an ethical and productive employment system that mandated fair treatment toward laborers. These same values are echoed in the American ideal of just and high-performing workplaces.
If Americans had paid sick days, our workers would be healthier, our workplaces would be more profitable, and our families would be stronger.
Some business owners have expressed concern about the cost of providing paid sick days and the risk of increased absenteeism. Yet the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that businesses that provide paid sick days have improved worker productivity and reduced turnover. The cost of replacing workers often exceeds the cost of having paid sick days.
Having paid sick days prioritizes the health of all workers. According to an article in the American Journal of Public Health, adults in workplaces without paid sick days are 1.5 times more likely to go home with a contagious illness than adults who have paid sick days. This is because workers without paid sick leave feel pressured to show up to work sick and infect others around them. The public health imperative is clear.
At some point in our lives, it is very likely that many of us will be primary caretakers either for children, spouses, parents, or other close family members — and sometimes even simultaneously. The National Partnership for Women and Families reports that almost 30 percent of adults serve as unpaid family caregivers annually. When a family caregiver has a paid job, their caregiving duties will necessitate taking some time off. We want caring and healthier families. A national paid sick days requirement is an overdue policy to strengthen and support American families.
The Healthy Families Act, originally introduced in 2004 by Rep. Rosa DeLauro and joined in this Congress by Sen. Patty Murray, would set a national paid sick days standard, allowing millions more workers to earn paid sick days. Under this legislation, workers in businesses with fifteen or more employees could earn up to seven job-protected paid sick days each year. American workers could recover from their own illnesses, access preventative care, or tend to a sick family member without losing the financial resources that they need to support their families.
I am lucky that my employer supported my decision to leave work and take my daughter to see the doctor. In the 21st century, in a country as wealthy as ours, having paid sick days should not be a matter of luck. It is long past time to pass the Healthy Families Act.
Rachel Laser is the deputy director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.