It’s time to pass a real paid sick day standard

January 27, 2020 12:01 am

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By Kim Bobo

People get sick. At this time of year, many of us get colds or the flu. We slip on ice. We need to take a sick day off of work to visit a doctor or care for a sick relative.

But 41 percent of private sector workers in Virginia (1.2 million workers) have no paid sick days or paid time off. Zero. National studies reveal that 80 percent of those without paid sick days are low-wage workers.  If your wages are low and you struggle to feed your family, you’ll probably go to work sick or send your child to school sick. 

The statistics are alarming: more than 80 percent of food service workers have no paid sick days and 20 percent of them have gone to work while vomiting or with diarrhea – and they are serving us food! The CDC has said about 50 percent of Norovirus outbreaks can be traced back to food service workers who were forced to choose between working sick and losing pay or their job. This is a public health emergency.

People get sick, which is why 145 nations offer paid sick time. In the U.S., 13 states and more than 20 cities and counties have passed a paid sick day standard and many more are considering it, and for good reason.

Creating a paid sick day standard would allow low-wage workers to take a few hours to see a doctor or a day to recuperate, without worrying about losing money for food or rent. A paid sick day standard helps schools, because sick children aren’t sent to school, where they can infect classmates and teachers.  A paid sick day standard improves public health by preventing the spread of diseases and allowing people to visit doctors instead of emergency rooms after their shifts.

Paid sick days also help employers and businesses by reducing turnover and workplace injuries. Sick workers and those on medication can infect customers, their colleagues and harm themselves and others if they are operating equipment.

The Virginia General Assembly is considering proposals to establish a paid sick day standard.  Sens. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, is sponsoring a bill with Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, in the Senate.  Delegate Guzman, D-Woodbridge, is sponsoring the bill in the House of Delegates, (she introduced similar proposals for the past two years).

Their modest bills require Virginia private sector employers to provide up to five paid sick days per year for employees, earned at a rate of one hour for every 30 hours worked.  Their bills exempt employers with five or fewer employees which means that most businesses (two-thirds of Virginia employers) are exempt.

Many other states and municipalities, however, cover all businesses regardless of size, such as New Jersey, Washington State, Vermont, California, Chicago and Cook County, Montgomery County, St. Paul and San Antonio.

In Dallas, the City Council recently implemented an ordinance requiring employers to offer one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours an employee works. Workers could accrue up to eight days (64 hours) of paid sick leave each year. For companies with fewer than 15 employees, that amount would be capped at six days (48 hours).”

 The proposed Virginia bills are modest, but offer a good starting point to protect workers and the public.

Despite the fact that the Favola-Stanley-Guzman proposal is reasonable and modest, the business lobby claims the sky is falling. What kind of a business model is likely to succeed that doesn’t account for workers getting sick and doesn’t offer a few paid sick days? Gov. Ralph Northam, in his attempt to appease the business lobby that opposes “any and all” standards, has drafted bills and recruited legislators to introduce them that would completely gut the standard, rendering it meaningless for low-wage workers and their families.

The governor’s bill would exempt 90 percent of all Virginia businesses from a paid sick day standard. The likely result is that less than a couple hundred thousand workers, instead of close to a million, would get access to Paid Sick Days.  

The governor is wrong on this issue.  People get sick. As a doctor, he knows this.

The Northam administration did a wonderful job rolling out Medicaid expansion — more than 372,000 additional Virginians now have health care coverage because of his leadership.  But, 42 percent of those new folks receiving health care are working and 31 percent are looking for jobs.

Those who are working and qualify for Medicaid are in low-wage jobs and 80 percent of them likely have no paid sick days, so they can’t take time off to see a doctor without losing family income, or their job. These new Medicaid recipients have access to health care but can’t afford to take time off to see a doctor. Dr. Northam’s bill puts our most vulnerable communities at risk.

People get sick.  Excluding two-thirds of businesses from a paid sick day standard (as in the Favola-Stanley-Guzman bills), is plenty. Exempting 90 percent of businesses from a paid sick day standard, as the governor proposes, is a sham.  Justice advocates around the nation are working to enact paid sick day standards similar to or better than those proposed by Favola, Stanley and Guzman.

Passing a sham bill undermines efforts around the country and harms Virginia workers, families and the public health.  The governor’s bill should be killed. 

People get sick.  Let’s pass a real paid sick day bill. 

Kim Bobo is the executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy.

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