Friday, March 7, 2008

Sick and Tired of Being Sick and... Fired

While many denizens of the nation's capital were absorbed by the political theater presented by the 'mini-super-Tuesday' whirlwind of Ohio and Texas, the District's city government played out its own drama albeit on a local stage. With little fanfare, Washington, DC added itself to the ranks of a growing revolution. What was so momentous, you ask? Well, on the very same day so much attention was riveted on the Buckeye and Lone Star states, the DC City Council passed the Accrued Paid Sick and Safe Days Act of 2007.

Why is this a big deal? Believe it or not, nearly half (48 percent) of full-time, private-sector employees have NO paid sick days whatsoever, and a total of 57 million working Americans can’t take a single paid sick day to care for their own health -- let alone a sick kid (IWPR, 2006). The problem hits working women particularly hard, who are still pretty much responsible for meeting family caregiving needs. Almost half (49 percent) of working mothers report that they must miss work when a child is sick. And of these mothers, 49 percent do not get paid when they miss work to care for a sick child (Kaiser, 2006).

In a city where the differences between the haves and have nots are often pretty stark, this new law will let workers to earn paid sick days they've never had access to before. The majority of these workers earn their living in low-wage retail, food service and construction jobs; physically demanding work, and -- in the case of food service and retail -- jobs where we'd all just as soon sick folks stay home rather than go to work and share their cooties with the rest of us.

The new law will provide seven paid sick and safe days for DC workers in companies with 100 employees or more, five days for firms with 25-99 employees, and three days for businesses with 24 or fewer employees. Of particular note, workers in the District are now also guaranteed paid safe days, so that those dealing with domestic abuse can take time off for violence-related court appearances for things like protection orders, as well as other social services.

The District measure got held up several times over objections from the business community, who are sure this law will put them in dun territory. It was the same argument the Chamber of Commerce and their pals threw at us over the Family and Medical Leave Act -- Chicken Little hysterics, it turns out. Fifteen years later, the sky has not fallen and the FMLA is an incredibly successful law. And, a year later, San Francisco -- the only other city with minimum paid sick days -- has not fallen into the ocean either. In fact, recent reports have shown that the program is getting implemented pretty smoothly -- although there is the inevitable paperwork -- and worries over employee abuse have been exaggerated.

The District's new law is not perfect -- no legislation is. It has a hardship exemption for businesses who can prove the law is problematic to their bottom line -- I'll be real curious to see how that plays out. The new law also excludes some food service workers and healthcare staff (healthcare? cuz those are the people we want going to work sick. are they smokin' crack?). You also have to be on the job for a year before you can benefit from this, well, benefit. No getting sick -- you or your kids -- for that first year! And, oh yeah -- like all other DC legislation -- it has to get the stamp of approval from Congress. A Congress, I might add, where DC residents have no voting representation in either chamber. But I digress.

While the District is only the second city to guarantee workers paid sick time, the bill is representative of a larger local, state and national effort to get paid sick days for all. There are cities, counties and states looking at similar legislation, and some states -- like Ohio -- are going for ballot initiatives on the issue. At first I thought maybe paid sick days could be a wedge issue for Democrats -- one that spurs turnout like a good old fashioned anti-gay marriage initiative rallies the wing nuts -- but hell, even the Republicans seem to like this idea. I tell you what, the polls on this issue are good -- it's good policy and just flat out the right thing to do.

And, the reality is, people get fired everyday for taking sick time. That same poll found that nearly one in eight voters surveyed said that they or an adult worker in their family had been fired or penalized by their employer for taking time off to care for a sick family member or recover from their own illness. The United States is shamefully outdated when it comes to these family friendly workplace polices. Despite our relative wealth, we're lagging dramatically behind those in much of the rest of the world. For example, of the 173 countries surveyed by Harvard and McGill University researchers, the we're one of only five countries that do not guarantee some form of paid maternity leave, a distinction We, the People shares with Lesotho, Liberia, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea. Nice company, huh? That's maternity leave, arguably a bigger deal -- all DC did was give seven paid sick days a year with a fair amount of restrictions and there are smiles all around (except at the Chamber of Commerce -- sorry, guys).

But it's a start. At the federal level, we're working to pass similar legislation called the Healthy Families Act (S. 910/H.R. 1542). This Kennedy/DeLauro bill provides full-time employees with seven paid sick days a year to be used for their own medical needs or to tend to the medical needs of a child, spouse or parent. Part-time employees would receive a pro-rated share of paid sick days. Radical, huh? I know. Call us crazy.

There are lots of ways you can speak your mind on this issue, if you'd like to join the fight. Write a letter to your Senators and Representative, and ask them to co-sponsor the bill. You can also take part in an Online Rally for Paid Sick Days, and share your story. Congress needs to hear the real stories from everyday people if we're going to get this done. And we must, because women are sick and tired of being sick and fired.

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