WASHINGTON, January 24 (By Carl Schreck for RIA Novosti) – Like the protagonist of some cold medicine commercial, Robert says he can’t afford to get sick and miss a shift at the upscale restaurant where he waits tables six nights a week in the US capital.
“It’s expensive to live in this city,” Robert, 31, told RIA Novosti this week. “You can’t just be missing days.”
Robert, who asked that his last name not be published because his employer has not authorized him to speak to the media about this job, actually has more access to paid sick leave than many Americans.
He works in Washington, which is just one of three US municipalities–along with one state, Connecticut—to guarantee paid sick leave for employees.
An estimated 40 million American workers have no paid sick leave, which the US federal government defines as a “benefit” rather than a right.
A national debate over mandatory sick pay has grabbed headlines in recent weeks in the United States, which has been gripped by a flu outbreak that health authorities say has reached epidemic proportions.
The United States is one of the few industrialized nations that does not have a federal law mandating paid sick leave, a situation that critics say pressures ill employees to come to work out of fear of losing a paycheck—or their jobs.
The results, they say, are decreased employee productivity and increased public exposure to infectious illnesses, particularly when workers like Robert and other food service employees—whose jobs involve face-to-face contact with the public—shrug off symptoms and clock in anyway.
According to a 2010 study at the University of Chicago, more than two-thirds of Americans reported going to work while sick. Employees without paid sick leave are 18 percent more likely to show up at work sick and 10 percent more likely to send their sick children to school or daycare, according to the study.
“I’m sure right now as we speak kids are going to school sick,” New York City legislator Gale Brewer told WNYC radio in an interview earlier this month. “Their parents cannot take a day off.”
New York City is arguably the current epicenter of the sick leave debate, with local lawmakers pushing for the nation’s financial capital to guarantee sick pay for workers.
Brewer is backing a bill that would guarantee businesses with five employees or more offer some sort of paid sick leave, and the legislation has received backing from a range of civic and religious groups, as well as celebrities like American feminist writer and activist Gloria Steinem.
New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, however, has said such legislation would hurt business during already difficult times, a position that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has expressed as well.
New York Times columnist Michael Powell noted with irony that Bloomberg’s opposition to the bill is at odds with his reputation as a public health activist—an image he has burnished by enacting public smoking bans and crackdowns on oversized sugary drinks.
“Bloomberg worries a lot about our health; he’s banned smoking in bars and vat-size cups of soda,” Powell wrote in October. “But suggest that a couple of women should be allowed to take off a day rather than cough bacteria into the chicken quesadillas, and his free-market spine stiffens.”
The lack of paid sick leave in the United States helped lead to an additional 5 million infections during the Swine Flu outbreak in 2009, according to a 2011 study published in the American Journal of Public Health.
Michael Sinesky, who owns several bars and restaurants in New York City, told The Associated Press this week that the bill would hurt his operations, particularly in the destructive wake left by Hurricane Sandy late last year.
“We’re at the point, right now, where we cannot afford additional social initiatives,” Sinesky told the AP.
Lawmakers in several other US cities are pushing for mandatory paid sick leave bills as well, including Portland, Oregon, and Philadelphia, whose mayor, Michael Nutter, vetoed a bill requiring sick pay in 2011.
Joel Mathis, a columnist for Philadelphia Magazine’s website, argued this week that paid sick leave legislation should be passed in the city in order to protect customers as well as workers.
“Want the flu with your fries?” Mathis wrote. “Some pertussis with your poutine? A cold with your cold beer? Because that’s what the current system is designed to provide.”