Opinion

What workers want: paid sick days | GUEST OP

Last year, in our tough economy, many of us asked for necessities and basics as holiday gifts. Among the gifts that would mean the most to families is the passage of the Healthy Families Act, introduced by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, along with Rep. Rosa DeLauro, in the 111th Congress this past May.

It wasn’t the first time that federal legislation guaranteeing workers a minimum number of paid sick days had been introduced. Previous efforts were unsuccessful. But now, the Healthy Families Act has 145 Congressional co-sponsors and has been endorsed by the Obama administration.

So health professionals, civil rights groups, labor unions, educators, faith organizations, elected officials and women’s groups like 9to5 are optimistic about its passage.

There’s something wrong when workers have to choose between keeping a job and taking care of themselves or their families when someone gets sick. There’s something wrong when going to a routine medical appointment or other preventative care could result in a pink slip. There’s something wrong when a domestic violence survivor seeking help or services is punished with the loss of her job.

There is so much at stake for women and their families here.

Women are still the ones who most often serve as caregivers when children, elderly parents, spouses or other relatives are ill. It is often mom who takes the children to get immunized or to other routine medical appointments. And, domestic violence disproportionately affects women. But taking the time off to care for our families or ourselves puts us at risk for losing our jobs. A survey widely reported this year showed that 1 in 6 respondents had been fired, suspended, reprimanded or threatened on the job for taking time off when they or a loved one was sick, or they knew someone who had faced those dire consequences.

9to5 members without paid sick days, like Latisha Carter in Milwaukee, report going to work with H1N1 flu rather than staying home to get better – and Latisha was pregnant at the time – for fear of losing their jobs. Those like Tahirah Foster in Denver report being forced out of good jobs because of a lack of paid sick days. In Tahirah’s case, her employer refused to allow her to balance her obligations at work with her obligations as a parent of a toddler with asthma. Those like Angel Warner in northern California report struggling mightily to stay well – using hand sanitizer constantly and wearing a protective mask at work. Angel doesn’t have paid sick days on the job and fears she’ll get sick with H1N1 as some of her co-workers have, losing pay or even her job as others have. Angel just can’t afford that in these tough economic times.

No one should have to work under those conditions – especially since paid sick days are not only good for employees but good for employers, too.

When federal paid sick days legislation passes, the huge cost to employers of workers coming in sick, lowering productivity and spreading contagions to other workers and customers, will be mitigated. When federal paid sick days legislation passes, employers will no longer be saddled with the turnover, human resource and retraining costs associated with firing some employees and hiring new ones.

When the Healthy Families Act passes, it will be a win for workers, a win for their employers, a win for our schools and communities, and a win for all of us.

We must speak out. Contact our members of Congress. Remind them that we’re moving into an election year and they must voice their support for this basic labor standard now. Tell them you want them to finish Senator Kennedy’s work by making the gift of paid sick days a reality for the 50 million workers who lack paid sick days and the 100 million workers who don’t have a sick day they can use to care for an ill child or other family member.

Linda Meric is executive director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women.

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