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Spreading the Problem

Depending on who you talk to, paid sick leave will either save money by keeping contagious workers out of the office, or it might bankrupt your boss

Gregory B. Hladky

April 21, 2010

Chrystal Shazel is a part-time home health aide who doesn’t have many options when she gets sick. “You don’t go to work,” this Bloomfield resident says, “not around elderly people, you can’t.”

Since the company she works for doesn’t offer paid sick time, Shazel stays home and loses money; and any loss hurts when you’re a 49-year-old trying to raise your grandson and your paycheck is just $166 every two weeks.

Some state lawmakers and public health officials argue Connecticut and its workers need a law to require employers to provide paid sick leave. They are once again pushing legislation to do just that, but it’s running up against stone-cold opposition from businesses and Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

“The governor opposes it,” says Rell spokeswoman Donna Tommelleo. “She believes it is a burden small businesses cannot bear in this economic climate.”

State Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney says supporters of the paid-sick-leave bill now awaiting Senate action are trying to find ways to “narrow its impact.” The goal is some compromise that would avoid a Rell veto without gutting the whole concept.

There is more at stake here than just another liberal “be-kind-to-downtrodden-workers” campaign. The potential link between the lack of paid sick leave for certain types of employees and the spread of disease sends shivers down the spines of many health officials.

When Lee Smith (not her real name) was working as a home health aide for a company in southern Connecticut, she came down with a “really bad stomach virus.” She had no paid sick leave, vacation or personal days, and was afraid if she took any time off, her temporary replacement might become permanent.

Even though her client was suffering from a condition that depressed her immune system, Lee refused to call in sick. “I just stayed at her home … I would buy medicine and worked through it,” she recalls. “I couldn’t afford to take the day off.” Since then, Lee has left that particular company and now works for a single client.

The outbreak of the H1N1 virus last year brought calls from the Centers for Disease Control and many public officials (including Rell) for infected workers to stay home to prevent further spread of the disease. Yet people like many school bus drivers and other low-wage and part-time workers often can’t afford not to work, regardless of the threat to others.

Another concern, according to state Healthcare Advocate Kevin Lembo, is the cost involved when sick workers fail to stay home or can’t get time off to see a doctor.

Lembo (who is currently seeking the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor) says ill employees who continue to work often deteriorate to the point where they end up going to the emergency room. “Things can get worse fast,” Lembo explains, and the result is extremely expensive emergency hospital care that runs up costs for the entire system.

Dr. Phil Brewer, director for student medical services at Quinnipiac University, also does regular shifts at Hartford Hospital’s emergency room. He says the ER is often “inundated with patients,” in part because people can’t get time off from their jobs to see a doctor during the day. Problems that could be resolved with a 30 to 40 minute doctor’s office visit can take hours at an over-loaded emergency room, Brewer says.

According to an article in last November’s issue of Forbes Magazine, 163 countries around the world require employees be granted paid sick leave. The U.S. is not among them.

A study by an international team of experts, including officials from McGill University’s Institute for Public Health and Social Policy and the Harvard School of Public Health, found that offering a week of paid sick leave would increase an employer’s wage costs by about 2 percent.

The increased expense would be more than offset by increased productivity resulting from better working conditions and healthier employees, according to a survey of the rights workers have in 190 countries. In addition to paid sick days, the study covered issues such as whether workers were granted vacation, maternity leave, and compensation for on-the-job injuries.

A 2007 study by federal labor officials found that 57 percent of American businesses offer their workers paid sick time.

A spokesman for Connecticut Working Families, one of the groups pushing the paid-sick-days bill, estimates as many as 600,000 part- and full-time workers in this state don’t get paid sick leave.

Kia Murrell, an assistant counsel and lobbyist for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, thinks that 600,000 estimate is pure crap. She says it’s an extrapolation of some national surveys and not based on “any state-specific data.”

Murrell (who does get paid sick leave at her job) says CBIA’s surveys of its members show the vast majority of Connecticut businesses already offer paid sick time. The problem, she insists, is that requiring all employers to do that could cut already slim profit margins for many smaller businesses pushed to the edge of failure by the recession.

Lots of companies, including many in the home health care industry, “operate on a very low profit margin,” Murrell says. They might not give workers paid sick days, but some offer flexible hours or personal days, according to Murrell.

She says the last thing the state should be doing in a recession is placing more mandates on an industry that offers jobs to people like single moms. Murrell doesn’t believe the difficulties of people like Shazel are very common.

Lee Smith, who doesn’t want her real name used because she fears retaliation from her former employer, has a different opinion.

“It’s quite the racket,” she says. “No sick days, no personal days, no nothing. … It’s a tough thing to be in.”

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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