Born in the U.S.A: Paid sick days a must

Eighty-six percent of Americans support it. Ninety-four percent of liberals and 81 percent of conservatives view it as a basic right. San Francisco, Portland, New York City and the state of Connecticut all require it. But today more than 4 in 10 private-sector workers and more than 80 percent of low-wage workers do not have access to paid sick days, including three out of four food service and hotel workers.

I hadn’t planned on writing this column. I already had one ready to be sent to the presses when this topic came up in a big way and hit me very close to home.

Tuesday night I started having a bit of irritation in my left eye which I wrote off as an allergic reaction to the pollen now saturating the air. But it got worse from there. While I was designing my pages for this edition of The News, my other eye, too, began to get a little irritated. Thursday morning I decided to make a visit to Primary Care, where I learned that I had pink eye.

As I’ve talked about in detail in previous columns, in addition to my post at The News, I also work part time in the fast-food industry, and that’s where I was on Tuesday night when this irritation started.

The possibility that I could have infected anyone, be they my coworkers or a customer, is terrifying and I sincerely hope that I was not yet at a contagious stage.

Three out of four food-service workers and hotel workers don’t have access to paid sick leave, and that’s a thought that should scare all of us. 60 percent of restaurant workers report having cooked, prepared and served food while sick.

I will admit to being one of those persons, because getting sent home at my other job on account of sickness is easier said than done. I am not proud of it, but when the choice you’re offered is between making enough money to put food on the table and gas in the tank, most workers (myself included) choose the latter because they just can’t afford to take a day off, especially when they’re only making $7.25 an hour.

It gets even scarier when you look at some of the numbers of those who have been infected due to a lack of paid sick leave. Women Employed, an advocacy group for working women, estimates that an additional 5 million people were infected with the flu in 2009 because of a lack of paid sick leave. Approximately 3,433 Americans died from the flu in 2009. How many died because we don’t let sick workers have a paid day off?

Business has been at the forefront in opposition to these policies because they argue that they hamper productivity. Not so, say the experts, who argue that paid sick leave increases productivity and reduces turnover, thus saving vital time and money for industry.

Many workers who take time off to recover from illness find themselves without a job when they return. Is that the kind of country we want to live in? One in which a day of sickness means months in the unemployment line?

Column by Devin Griggs, opinion editor. Devin serves as vice president of finances for the Murray State College Democrats.