1:07 PM Eastern - Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Big business's skewed view on paid sick leave

In the last couple of weeks, there's been a rise in the debate over H1N1 and paid sick leave policy. Emergency H1N1 legislation has been introduced by Sen. Chris Dodd that would require employers with more than 15 workers to provide seven days of paid sick leave if they or their children come down with either H1N1 or seasonal flu.

Big business, however, appears to be completely in denial over the importance of the issue.

As the self-described "voice of business," the U.S. Chamber of Commerce claims to represent the viewpoint of both large and small businesses on sick leave policy, and according to Mother Jones, insists that a global epidemic is not a good reason to start treating employees like human beings:

"The problem is not nearly as great as some people say," said Chamber Vice President Randel K. Johnson. "Lots of employers work these things out on an ad hoc basis with their employees."

President and CEO of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council Karen Kerrigan echoes this sentiment:

"Employers and their work force appear to be handling this challenge just fine without the federal government's involvement. Unlike the problems that the government is having getting the flu vaccine out to Americans, employers and organizations are working through this national health emergency quite smoothly."

Uh, we beg to differ, Randel and Karen. As a direct result of relying on voluntary employer policies to provide paid sick leave to employees, over fifty million U.S. workers have no paid sick days at all!

As the swine flu spreads across the nation -- and the CDC continues to advocate for flu sufferers to stay at home until the fever goes away -- the significant portion of the American workforce that faces a tough choice about whether to call in sick or go to work sick (and still get paid) has ramifications for us all. Lack of paid sick time for millions of American workers could increase the spread of this year's flu pandemic and other infectious diseases. But the fact remains that many workers don't even have the option of taking a paid flu vacation, as the Chamber advocates. They can't risk losing their jobs, or their already too-small paychecks won't allow a day (or more) of missed wages.

Paid sick leave not related to unemployment

When sick workers are on the job, it costs our national economy $180 billion annually in lost productivity.
When sick workers are on the job, it costs our national economy $180 billion annually in lost productivity.
Business groups like the National Federation of Independent Business and the National Small Business Association say the sick leave bills introduced in Congress come at a time when small businesses owners are struggling to keep afloat--and that covering the costs of mandated sick days could cause employers to have to lay off employees. Despite these frequent claims from some in the business community, a recent study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), a nonpartisan think tank, found no correlation between paid sick days and unemployment.

Another major new study by researchers at Harvard and McGill Universities -- the largest ever to look at working conditions worldwide -- finds that a week of paid sick leave would cost a business just 2 percent more in wage costs. The study's authors also say the documented increase in productivity due to better working conditions would easily earn back the investment.

Paid sick days are critical to the ability of working Americans when they or their children are sick and to prevent the spread of the swine flu pandemic. Think about it this way: wouldn't you prefer food service workers and restaurant workers did not work sick? How about care providers that look after your child while you're at work, or the home care workers that help your parent with daily tasks so they can continue to live at home?

Sane public health policies increase quality of life in a cornucopia of settings--and maybe if we remind the U.S. Chamber of Commerce about this enough times, they'll realize how absurd lobbying against legislation that would help with these issues is.

Not likely...but still worth a try. Tell the Chamber to cease lobbying against an emergency bill to give workers seven days of paid sick time per year: http://action.seiu.org/chamber.

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