Cough If You Need Sick Leave

The short, lumpy red couch in Stili Klikizos' second-grade classroom at Milwaukee's Fratney Elementary School was meant for quiet-time reading. Now it's "the sick couch," a place for ill students to lie down as they await the bus that takes everybody home at day's end. "The parents work and will lose pay if they come get them," she told me as I sat on the couch. Thanks to her union contract, Klikizos gets 12.5 paid sick days a year. Many of her students' parents aren't so fortunate. "It crosses socioeconomic lines. Sometimes kids tell me not to even call, since 'Mom will get fired if she leaves.'" Last year, several couch-sitters were belatedly diagnosed with swine flu.

The no-show parents are among the 40 percent of the private sector who don't receive sick pay. Among full-time workers, 73 percent are covered by paid medical days. (Ninety-one percent have paid vacation, 89 percent paid holidays). The percentage is far lower on every count for part-time workers, though it's not just the motel cleaning lady or immigrant dishwasher who is scared to call in sick, see a doctor, or pick up a kid from school. Retail sales supervisors and information technology managers deal with the same domestic crises.

They all have a stake in the little-noticed debate over paid sick days now unfolding in Washington, state capitals, and cities, with strong arguments for change confronting the economic and political realities of a recession that makes employers nervous about any extra costs. In Congress, the proposed Healthy Families Act—one of the last bills sponsored by Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy before he died—would guarantee as many as seven paid sick days a year for workers at companies with at least 15 employees. More than 30 million additional workers would be covered if it passes, including 6 million food-service and food-preparation workers who now have to either work when sick or lose pay. Consider that next time you're dining out.

Similar state and local proposals are launching debates in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York City. Laws are already in force in San Francisco and the District of Columbia, with the constitutionality of Milwaukee's soon to be argued in the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The face-offs echo those surrounding the Family & Medical Leave Act signed by Bill Clinton in 1993, with one side invoking morality and practicality and the other warning of dire economic consequences. The FMLA allows workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to deal with a serious health problem, birth or adoption of a child, or care for a family member. Its impact has been decidedly benign.

Under a city ordinance that passed in 2008, Milwaukee workers would be eligible for up to five sick days a year if privately employed in a business of fewer than 10 workers, and up to nine days at larger firms. An employer that already provides paid leave, notably personal days or vacation, might get a pass. Still, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce insists the change would kill jobs "by making Milwaukee a high-cost island in which to do business." It doesn't acknowledge the possibility that new employer costs might be outweighed by reduced turnover and recruitment expenses.

In San Francisco, both the Chamber of Commerce and the Golden Gate Restaurant Assn. had similar qualms before its law took effect in 2007. Kevin Westlye, the association's executive director, says members assumed that, given the city's high minimum wage ($9.79) and mandated health insurance, paid sick leave was "strike three." The first two mandates still rankle, but paid sick days "is the best public policy for the least cost. Do you want your server coughing over your food?" The nightmare vision restaurateurs had of organized sickouts and staffers splitting "to go see the Giants play on a Friday," he says, hasn't panned out.

There's a pattern here. Washington declines to raise the federal minimum wage during hard times, and states tend to go ahead and do so. There's no question that the aftermath of the Great Recession is a tricky time to impose new costs, even if this is the right move for fairness and public health. It's a mistake for cities to "undertake a social justice agenda" and "ideologically impose" such mandates, says Kathryn S. Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, which represents major businesses. She's convinced of ill effects from the pending New York City proposal yet doesn't deny a popular allure. There's a certain inevitability to paid sick leave; as even Wylde concedes, "Who can argue that somebody should be cooking in a restaurant with a contagious flu?" Let the lumpy red couch in Milwaukee be used for reading, not recuperating.

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