Paid sick leave is a universal right: The time has come

Paid sick leave is a universal right: The time has come
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The rapid spread of the coronavirus has shocked the country into recognizing the need for universal paid sick leave. 

In response, on March 6, 2020, Washington legislators introduced an emergency paid sick leave bill in the Senate by Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayCOVID-19 workplace complaints surge; unions rip administration Lack of child care poses major hurdle as businesses reopen Democratic leaders say Trump testing strategy is 'to deny the truth' about lack of supplies MORE (D-Wash.), and in the House, Rosa DeLauroRosa Luisa DeLauroCOVID-19 workplace complaints surge; unions rip administration Lack of child care poses major hurdle as businesses reopen Frustrations grow over incomplete racial data on COVID-19 cases, deaths MORE, (D-Conn.)

But on March 11, Senate Republicans blocked the emergency paid sick leave bill from coming to the Senate floor.

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A handful of companies — such as Darden Restaurants, Walmart, McDonald’s, Uber and Lyft — have declared a change their policies to allow COVID-19 paid sick leave; but that won’t solve the problem for the over 40 percent of U.S. workers in low paid and insecure frontline service jobs.  

But without a universal mandate, volunteerism won’t work.

Paid sick leave should be a universal right, enforced by law – not subject to the decisions of employers to give and take at will. More than 32 million Americans – a quarter of U.S. workers — have no paid sick days, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data. 

Seventy percent of low-wage workers have no paid sick leave at all. And, the overwhelming majority are women and people of color — exacerbating the wage and income inequality that has expanded so dramatically in recent decades.

In our national survey of restaurants, we found that only 20 percent of managers reported they offered any paid sick leave to workers – and even in upscale fine dining, the average was only 26 percent. The figures are far worse for franchised establishments, which now represent over 90 percent of all fast food outlets in the US. There, only 10 percent of franchisees offer any paid sick leave to their workers, according to our 2019 national survey.

Since 2012, 12 states and several cities have mandated paid sick leave. New York’s law, for example, covers all employers with five employees or more and requires unpaid sick leave for those with four employees or less.

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That law equalized workplace rights by giving the 35 percent of NYC workers with no paid sick leave that right for the first time. But laws in other states, such as Connecticut, only cover larger employers with 50 employees or more – excluding many workers who may need it most.

Moreover, these laws often go unenforced — either because employers misclassify employees as independent contractors and ineligible for paid sick leave —or because employers simply ignore the law.

And, ignoring the law leads to serious food safety problems that affect consumers and workers alike. A just-released massive investigation of Chipotle restaurants in New York City found that workers were pressured to work while sick and that work speedups often prevented them from washing their hands or taking time to follow proper food safety procedures.

Employers say that they can’t afford to pay sick leave in competitive low wage industries such as restaurants and retail stores. But, empirical research belies that myth.  

The business case for the passage of universal paid sick leave is strong.

A decade of empirical research shows that employers benefit from paid sick leave through higher productivity and lower turnover. After the passage of paid sick leave laws in several states, employers reported some economic benefits – and few or no negative effects – according to research conducted by Eileen Appelbaum, Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), and Ruth Milkman, CUNY Graduate Center.

The time is ripe for the U.S. to catch up with the rest of the world’s advanced economies.  

Paid sick leave should be a universal right.

Rosemary Batt is the Alice H. Cook Professor of Women and Work, Cornell University ILR School.  She is co-author of “The Quality of Jobs in Restaurants,” in Paul Osterman, ed. 2020. Creating Good Jobs: An Industry-Based Strategy. MIT Press. 2020.

Editor's note: This piece has been updated to correct a headline and byline.