A push for paid sick leave in Pa. and Philly

By Jake Blumgart

You wake up with a throbbing headache, achy muscles, and a hacking cough. Do you miserably trudge into work or call in sick? Will the call depend on the health of your body or your wallet?

For almost half of Pennsylvania’s workforce, the answer will come down to money. Neither Pennsylvania, nor any other state, requires employers to offer earned sick leave. True, 54 percent of the state’s private-sector workers are offered sick-leave pay, as are 56 percent of workers in Philadelphia. But those who enjoy such benefits tend to have higher incomes, which means, perversely, that if you can swallow an unpaid sick day, you don’t have to. The other half of the workforce is on its own.

Thankfully, regional politicians are responding to the squeeze on working families. Bills to require paid sick leave have been introduced in Philadelphia by Councilman Darrell L. Clarke and in Harrisburg by State Rep. Marc Gergely (D., Allegheny).

Clarke’s bill would let workers earn one hour of paid sick leave per 30 hours worked, with a cap of 72 hours in a calendar year. The more austere state bill requires 40 hours of work to earn a sick- leave hour and only guarantees 52 hours of sick leave annually. There is a hearing scheduled on Gergely’s bill tomorrow in Harrisburg.

Business interests routinely oppose such legislation, claiming – during good times or bad – that even the most modest benefits will harm the economy and kill jobs. That argument could prove quite potent in the present climate.

But evidence suggests that paid sick leave isn’t the job killer its opponents claim.

A majority of the world’s advanced, industrial nations guarantee sick-leave benefits, as do Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. (Paid sick leave has never been instituted on the state level, although both California and New Jersey have paid family-leave laws that haven’t lived up to the apocalyptic fears of employers.)

In 2006, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to guarantee its citizens the right to paid sick days. The city’s business lobby argued passionately against the initiative. Kevin Westlye, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, told the New York Times, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch on something like this,” and darkly warned of rising prices and shuttered restaurants.

Four years later, these dire predictions haven’t come to pass. A recent study by the Drum Major Institute shows the employment rate in San Francisco outperforming five neighboring counties, including wealthy Santa Clara (Silicon Valley). Even the industries where opponents feared the impact would be harshest – retail, hospitality, and food services – remained stronger, without exception, than their counterparts nearby.

A 2009 Center for Economic and Policy Research study found that sick-leave laws in 22 advanced nations didn’t have any discernible relation to employment either.

In fact, studies show that paid sick leave could be beneficial for employers. Currently, businesses lose money from high turnover rates caused by illness absences and from the lowered productivity that results from sick employees spreading their germs at work. A study by the Institute of Women’s Policy Research shows that offering all U.S. workers seven days of paid sick leave annually would result in “a net savings of $8.1 billion a year due to increased productivity and reduced turnover.”

Today, even San Francisco business owners have come around. Jim Lazarus, senior vice president of the city’s Chamber of Commerce, told the Wall Street Journal that the legislation hasn’t stirred up any backlash from his members. And in June, former doomsayer Westlye sounded downright enthusiastic about the bill in Business Week: “[Paid sick leave] is the best public policy for the least cost. Do you want your server coughing over your food?”

Despite San Francisco’s experience, business groups from California to Connecticut still cry wolf about paid sick leave. But lawmakers at tomorrow’s hearing and elsewhere should ignore those claims.

Paid sick leave would have an immensely positive and tangible impact on Pennsylvania families – and even lawmakers. The National Opinion Research Center released a June poll showing that 86 percent of respondents – Republicans and Democrats – favored paid sick leave. They also said they would be likely to vote for politicians who supported it.

As the San Francisco experience shows, we can make our economy friendlier to beleaguered workers without harming their employers.

Jake Blumgart is a freelance writer. This originally appeared as an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

One Response

  1. Strange is the states, in the Netherlands we have 2 years sick pay, in most cases 100%. This is in teh whole of the Netherlands, this rule is not for self employed people, the trouble is that that group is growing.

    Atte Houtsma; shop steward in the health sector.

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