Champions of paid sick days laws and practices gathered at the Center for American Progress on October 21 for an event co-sponsored by the National Partnership for Women & Families to discuss the growing momentum of the laws, the arguments for and against the legislation, and what the future looks like for the movement.
“It’s good public-health policy and it’s fair,” said Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy, who participated in the panel discussion. “The combination of that really does trump any arguments against it.”
This past spring, under Malloy’s leadership, Connecticut passed S.B. 913, the Paid Sick Leave bill, which made the Nutmeg State the country’s first state to pass a law requiring paid sick days for service employees. While many salaried workers have paid sick days in their contract, the same does not apply to 80 percent of low-wage workers, and Malloy emphasized this point.
“This discussion is about hourly workers at the lower end of the scale who are the most vulnerable,” Malloy said.
The panel discussion also included Seattle City Council Member Nick Licata, the champion of the paid sick days ordinance that recently made Seattle the third U.S. city with a paid sick days standard, and Andy Shallal, founder of the local restaurant Busboys and Poets, where he provides paid sick days to tip-based employees, which the district’s legislation does not cover.
Employees should not have to decide between getting well and keeping their jobs or wages. Malloy cited data showing that 68 percent of workers admitted going to work sick for fear of losing their jobs. Panelists noted that this not only has an enormous impact on those workers’ well-being but also on the workers’ families, co-workers, and any customers they come into contact with. Shallal noted that particularly in the restaurant industry, having a sick employee come to work simply doesn’t make sense from a health standpoint for all parties involved.
The discussion touched on what it takes to pass paid sick days legislation and the arguments made against it. Licata said that a broad coalition, and one that operates not just on paper, was key to the success in Seattle. He noted that early negotiations with businesses and making concessions to get those businesses on board were imperative, as was the help of unions. Licata believed that if the arguments were presented well, it was an issue that could garner large levels of support.
Building on this point, the panelists argued that paid sick days laws could become a very successful political issue, as polling suggests quite favorable public reception. Malloy offered data from Connecticut indicating overwhelming backing from Democrats and independents and up to 50 percent support from Republicans. Licata agreed and added, “The great thing about paid sick leave is that we’re gaining ground. It’s very important to have victories that we can build on.”
The reason for the laws’ potential political success is the very few viable arguments against them. Malloy argued the law promotes increases in health, and data suggests businesses can cut costs by reducing presenteeism, or employees coming to work while sick. Panelists also discussed San Francisco, an early adopter of these practices, where evidence shows that job growth has been more robust than in the surrounding five counties. And all three panelists vehemently disagreed with the business community’s claim that individuals will abuse their paid sick days.
Shallal lamented the lack of trust between some employers and their employees and believed the need for paid sick days boils down to an issue of human rights and dignity. “Nothing speaks more for respect than when you care for someone when they’re sick,” he said.
Discussing the adoption of these practices during a struggling economic period—another argument critics have pointed to—the panelists firmly believed that an economic downturn is precisely the time these types of laws are needed.
“[Government’s] role is not just to promote a strong economy and create jobs. It’s also to create good citizenship and protect the welfare of our citizens,” Licata said. “When would there be a better time to protect the welfare of our citizens than when they’re hurting the most?”
Licata also linked this idea to the reforms spurred by the Great Depression, noting the strengthened labor laws that came out of that era. Shallal expanded on this, giving a charge for the advancement of paid sick laws.
“Many of the advances in the workplace that we’ve done have happened in some of the worst times,” he said. “This is the time to talk. This is the moment that we can enter the conversation and make some change.”