By Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, from Politico
Use a tissue when you sneeze. Cover your mouth when you cough. Wash your hands often when you are sick. As children, we are taught a set of basic common courtesies to prevent the spread of disease — and as the national flu epidemic worsens, health experts and elected officials alike are now urging adults to do the same, advising people to stay home from work if they are ill.
But the reality is that staying home from work for several days to recuperate and recover from the flu — or something worse — is challenging or impossible for tens of millions of Americans. Forty percent of private-sector workers have no access to paid sick days, meaning that they cannot miss a day of work without risking a day’s pay or even risking their job. So these hardworking people must make an impossible choice between the job they need and their health and well-being.
It’s a choice that no American should have to make — which is why, this year, I plan to reintroduce the Healthy Families Act, a bill that would allow workers to earn paid sick days that can be used to recover from a short-term illness, care for a sick family member, obtain preventive or diagnostic treatment or seek help if they have been victims of domestic violence.
Twenty years ago on Feb. 5, 1993, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Family and Medical Leave Act, the culmination of years of efforts from a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) and Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.). This critical law represented a major step forward for working families by ensuring that employees would be entitled to up to 12 weeks of protected — albeit unpaid — leave to recover from a serious illness or care for a new child or seriously ill family member. A recent update provides 26 weeks of family leave to families of injured service members and recent veterans.
Two decades later, millions of Americans have utilized family and medical leave — to look after a sick parent, to tend to a wounded warrior or to welcome an infant to their family — with the knowledge that they can return to work afterward. But we still have progress to make when it comes to helping working families, and that includes guaranteeing paid sick time to individuals that work hard, earn it and deserve it.
Under the Healthy Families Act, workers can earn up to 56 hours, or seven days, of paid sick time. Workers earn one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked. Employers that already provide paid sick time will not have to change their current policies, as long as their existing time can be used for the same purposes. Employers can also require workers to provide documentation supporting any request for leave longer than three consecutive days.
The United States is the only developed nation that does not guarantee paid sick days to its workers, and our economy and productivity suffer as a result. Contrary to popular belief, not absenteeism, but “presenteeism”— when a sick employee shows up to the workplace and infects his or her colleagues — is the greatest cause of lost productivity due to illness. One study found that a lack of paid sick days — and thus the inability to distance oneself from co-workers — contributed to an additional 5 million cases of the H1N1 flu during the 2009 outbreak.
Seventy percent of low-wage workers — those least likely to be able to afford a lost paycheck or lost job — have no paid sick days. This group is largely workers in jobs that have frequent contact with members of the public, including food service, hospitality, nursing home care and child care. Their lack of paid sick leave poses a public health threat to all of us and our loved ones. Shockingly, nearly two-thirds of restaurant workers have reported cooking or serving food while sick. Workers’ rights should matter to everyone, but they matter even more when you consider that your next turkey sandwich might be served with a side of the flu.
But perhaps most important, under the Healthy Families Act, workers would have the security of knowing that when illness strikes — as it undoubtedly will — they will be able to tend to their families and themselves without losing their jobs or their income. This bill will provide health, peace of mind and security for America’s workers and their families — and that’s something that everyone deserves.