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The Cost Of Not Paying For Sick Days

Susan Campbell

February 17, 2009

Two years after he opened Pond House Cafe in Elizabeth Park, Louis Lista realized that it made good business sense to provide benefits for his workers.

That included health insurance, 401(k)s and paid vacation, personal and sick days in an industry notorious for its paucity of employee benefits. The economy was chugging along (this was eight years ago), and though Lista says it's a little tougher now, he is firm on providing benefits, and he wonders why other restaurants don't follow his lead.

"We look at our staff as a valuable asset," Lista said. "The more people we retain, the better off the business. We've been able to grow each year. We have good people." Each summer, his staff increases by 20 or so from its quieter winter season of 35 or so, among them college students, young mothers, retirees all with different benefit needs.

By some estimates, 630,000 Connecticut workers don't have paid sick days, and a good number work in the food-service industry.

A bill before the state legislature grants paid sick days to employees in businesses with 50 or more workers. For every 40 hours worked, employees would earn one hour of sick time or 6.5 days a year. A similar bill made it through the Senate last year but never reached a vote in the House.

A bill supporter, Everybody Benefits, is a coalition of organizations including Connecticut Working Families, the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, ACORN and SEIU BJ32, among others. The group recently kicked off its legislative campaign at Hartford's Legislative Office Building with testimony and a televised public service video from Gov. M. Jodi Rell urging residents to stay home if they're sick.

But if that means missing a day's pay, most employees can't manage it, so they drag into work and risk infecting others. Ironically, this is especially true among food-service workers, of whom only 20 percent have paid sick days. Overall, 40 percent of Connecticut's employees don't have paid sick days, and that number jumps to 75 percent among lower-paid jobs.

Gloria Duquette is a certified nurse's assistant. She has yet to take a sick day in her three years on the job. Instead, she's come in sick to work with some of the most vulnerable of clients. Last week, she had flu-like symptoms. Vitamins got her through, she said, and though she feels bad about perhaps infecting someone at work, she can't afford to miss a day's pay.

Then there's the price of something, and the cost. The National Partnership of Women & Families released a report recently that said a lack of paid sick days costs more in the long run. People who don't stay home often push themselves to the point of needing hospitalization. And people who come in sick infect their colleagues, which results in reduced productivity or worse.

Long-time bill supporter Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, said, "State employees and legislators have paid sick days. Why shouldn't people out there who are just as human as we are have paid sick time?"

Rep. John Kissell, R-Enfield, said many businesses are already providing paid days, so making it a requirement for larger companies shouldn't be onerous. Kissell also noted that people who've lost jobs recently are in the job market and sometimes working two and three jobs to make ends meet.

"Those folks ... shouldn't be at the mercy of their employers," he said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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