Paid Sick Time is More Than A "Public Health Issue."

Although the panic over H1N1 has abated, one advisory for preventing the spread of the illness has fueled a debate over paid sick leave. The CDC is encouraging workers to stay home if they feel ill, but only 40 percent of private-sector employees receive paid sick leave, and many of those those who do have it work under punitive policies designed to prevent employees from malingering.

In New York City, Council Member Gale Brewer is working to create a sick-leave policy for full-time and part-time workers who don't currently have it. Brewer is the lead sponsor on a bill cribbed from a 2007 San Francisco ordinance, that allows for (PDF) workers at small businesses to accrue up to 5 days of paid sick leave and those at larger businesses to accrue 9 days. The bill does not affect employers who already have a paid leave policy in place.

It's good policy, but I'm depressed that the bill has to be sold as a public health issue rather than a human-rights issue. Low-skill/low-wage jobs are performed by people who should have the right to personal days without penalization, especially since, due to the effects of poverty, they're often more likely to need them.

In a recent appearance on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show, Brewer said more than a million of the city's workers don't have paid sick time. She framed paid sick time as a way to combat the slow-but-steady rise of seasonal influenza and H1N1 in the city -- a point underscored by a New York State Assembly H1N1 report which states (PDF) that a lack of paid sick time goes beyond creating inconvenient work disincentives as workers "may even lose their jobs for taking unpaid sick leave."

But one noteworthy thing Brewer didn't mention was that the bill expands the definition of sick time to explicitly include time off to "deal with health and safety issues arising from domestic or sexual violence." Given that women are overrepresented in low-wage jobs, they would stand to benefit most from the bill, should it become law. And this specific provision is critical as poor women are also more likely to suffer from domestic violence at the hands of a male partner. Giving them the ability to take time off, without repercussions, to take care of their health and handle legal issues is a fantastic, if much-belated, progressive step.

It's exciting that a bill like this has the potential to pass in a major metropolitan area -- New York has hundreds of thousands of workers literally living on day-to-day wages. But the fear that they'll make the rest of us sick, instead of acknowledging that this is a basic right all workers deserve, is a pretty sorry catalyst.

--Shani O. Hilton

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