Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired

by Landon Dickey on July 27, 2006

Last week workers in San Francisco won a major victory through the passage of Tom Ammiano’s universal health security ordinance. The ordinance, which guaranteed coverage for the uninsured residents of the city, affirmed the mayor and Board of Supervisors’ support for the labor community.

Yesterday, however, laborers were back on the front lines. Now they are fighting for the “right to be sick”. Prior to the Budget and Finance Committee meeting, Young Workers United member Dante Grant led a press conference intended to share workers’ grievances.

A strong coalition including Young Workers United, the Chinese Progressive Association, and the Center for Young Women’s Development laid out the case for paid sick days. Christine Dehlendorf, a doctor and member of the SEIU Committee of Interns and Residents, pointed out workers who are not compensated for sick days “postpone going to the doctor” indefinitely. As a result, they risk infecting their co-workers and clients.

The risk of transmission is “devastating for any small to medium-sized business,” commented Sandy Burrs, a hair stylist in San Francisco.

Unfortunately, for several workers it is a simple decision. Rent has to be paid and children must be cared for. So they work.

“When I was sick and I went to work, the last thing on my mind was getting little kids sick,” explained Grant. The little kids he referred to were those who frequented his family’s restaurant in Daly City. He justified his comment stating, “If you don’t go to work, you don’t get paid, you can’t pay your bills”.

The proposed legislation grants workers the right to take time off to care for his or herself and immediate family without penalty. This addition was primarily motivated out of concern for parents forced to choose between sacrificing a day of wages or their child’s health. According to Kate Kahan of the National Partnership for Women and Families, the burden falls especially heavy on the backs of women. Kahan argued, as women still are the primary caregivers in the household it is them who are more frequently jeopardizing their career.

Julia Sen, a teacher at Sanchez Elementary School validated Kahan’s claims, relaying the story of a working mother asked to skip out on work for her child’s health. Sen assured the crowd this was not an isolated incident, on the contrary parents frequently must choose between leaving their sick children at school or home alone.

Dr. Rajiv Bhatia of the Department of Public Health agreed, “Having sick days is an important public health benefit, benefiting both the individual and the whole society”. Ailing individuals who are allowed time to recover necessitate fewer ambulatory hospitalizations and are less likely to transmit infections. In this way, sick days offset future costs a business may face as a result of lower productivity and worker turnover.

Emergency hospitalization is particularly a problem for low-income residents. Looking at the frequency of ambulatory treatment for diabetes, Bhatia noted a “striking correspondence” between low-income neighborhoods and emergency treatment calls. Poorer citizens are more likely to put off treatment until it is too late, a consequence that is certainly influenced by sick day benefits. The legislation offers the promise of rectifying inequities in treatment.

Furthermore, according to Vicky Lovell of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, even the financial benefits outweigh the costs. Though the program will cost an annual $33.5 million once implemented, it should in turn yield over $45 million in savings. Nearly $42 million of the savings will come from decreased worker turnover. The savings includes reductions in voluntary turnover, workers quitting in search of sick day benefits, and involuntary turnover, workers leaving due to illness.

The remaining savings will be accumulated through increases in worker productivity. Sick workers do not have the capacity to work to their full potential and as a result perform tasks with decreasing efficiency. Businesses feel the costs of laborers who are producing goods or providing services inefficiently through dips in sales.

Lovell hoped to dispel some of the misconceptions regarding paid sick days. She assured businesses every worker will NOT use every day of paid sick benefits they receive. On the contrary, the average amount of time off taken by workers already covered by the policy is 1.9 days. Furthermore, nearly half of those covered do not take a single sick day. This is especially true for workers earning the minimum wage who are paid at least in part on commission. These workers cannot afford to take a free day unless it is absolutely necessary.

Once again Chris Daly led the wave of progressivism, emphasizing the need for “folks who are sick to stay home and recover”. He noted that the system as it is kicks workers when they’re down and furthermore, endangers the wellness of others.

The legislation is necessary and seems as if it should be a basic right, but is unlikely to gain support from San Francisco’s business community. Business feels it has been taking left and right hooks for the past two months from minimum wage, health care, and housing ordinances. Now, the only question is how strong will they punch back.

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