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Sick and Fired

Labor's push to mandate paid sick days and the business lobby's slightly inaccurate facts

Andy Bromage

May 05, 2009

If Kia Murrell gets sick, she can call out from work and still earn a day's pay while recuperating at home.

If Marie gets sick, she's got to sniffle, sneeze and vomit her way through the work day.

Murrell is a lobbyist for the Connecticut Business & Industry Association (CBIA), the state's largest business lobby. Marie drives buses for Bridgeport public schools.

CBIA gives its employees paid sick days. Marie's company doesn't. If CBIA has its way, that's how it will stay.

CBIA is leading the fight at the Capitol against a progressive piece of legislation that would make Connecticut the first state to guarantee paid sick days for all hourly employees. Business leaders call it "a bad idea at any time," especially now with the economy in the toilet.

But the main proponent of the bill, the Connecticut Working Families Party, says it probably wouldn't cost employers a thing in the long run and accuses the CBIA of spreading misinformation to protect business owners at the expense of sick employees who work for dirt pay.

Consider Marie's story, then ask yourself if you'd want her driving your kids to school, rather than staying home sick in bed.

Marie shuttles Bridgeport children to schools in leafy suburbs like Trumbull and Easton. Marie (whose real name we're withholding because she fears retaliation for speaking out against her employer) works through colds, fevers and flu because if she calls out sick, she doesn't get paid. Without the pay, she can't afford her blood pressure medication, and without the medication, she sometimes gets too sick to work.

Last year, she went to work so sick she had to pull her school bus over and vomit on the side of the road twice. Marie had already missed several half-days due to illness. Any more, her employer told her, and she'd be out of a job.

So instead of staying home and resting, she hauled herself down to the bus yard, sick to her stomach, and drove 15 young children home from school.

"This is no good for me or the kids," says Marie, who is 45. "I don't want to spread my germs to them and give them the flu, but I have no choice. I earn around $93 a day. Even if I didn't have to fear for my job when taking a day off, how can I pay my bills without that?"

Marie's a compelling poster girl for paid sick leave, but by no means the grossest example. Think about the cafeteria cook making pans of lasagna, hands clammy with cold, who comes into work because he can't afford to miss a day's pay or would get fired if he did. Think about the home health aide changing Granny's diaper who works through a stomach bug or God forbid, swine flu. It's as much about public health as it is about fairness in the workplace, proponents say.

The legislation, now on its third try at the statehouse, would require companies with 50 or more employees to provide accrued sick time for hourly workers, up to 6.5 days a year. Workers could use their time to treat illness or injury for themselves or their children, for preventative care or for care related to being a victim of family violence or sexual assault.

Fully 40 percent of private-sector workers in Connecticut some 600,000 individuals don't get paid sick time, though it's unclear how many of those would be covered by the bill.

Jon Green, director of the Working Families Party, estimates it's somewhere around half, and points to three ways in which employers' costs go up when they don't give paid sick leave:

Presenteeism: Human resources jargon which refers to lost productivity from employees who go to work sick (and from other workers those sick employees infect).

Turnover: Employers that provide paid leave experience less of it.

Health care costs: Workers without paid sick time are more likely to put off routine medical visits and forgo earlier (and cheaper) interventions.

The paid sick bill recently cleared the Judiciary Committee and now goes to the House, where it faces an uphill battle from majority Democrats wary of looking anti-business.

The CBIA, in turn, has ramped up its campaign against the bill, sending an e-mail blast last week that warns the measure would cost the state of Connecticut $1.2 million just as the state's trying to close a gaping $8 billion two-year budget gap.

"Given the deep state budget deficit, our state economy simply can't afford these extra costs," the CBIA said in its most recent "Government Affairs Report."

But Green says the CBIA is relying on "potential" costs that are unlikely to materialize. The state's nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis says the bill would require $500,000 a year to cover workers in the state university and community college systems, plus $116,900 a year for a Labor Department attorney to handle complaints.

But the bill clearly states the Labor Department must handle disputes within its existing budget without new money. The $500,000 figure relates to college assistants and lecturers, and a forthcoming amendment will exempt them from the bill, Democrats in the legislature say.

"The direct impact to taxpayers would be zero dollars and zero cents," Green says.

CBIA's Kia Murrell says she feels for Marie, and all employees who work sick, but says business owners have it just as rough.

"This woman, as bad as her story is, isn't the only person out there," Murrell says. "The guy that she works for may be operating on a shoestring budget. He may be going broke trying to cover the shifts she can't work."

Murrell insists that if paid sick time were a basic human right, it would be mandated at the federal level. And since it's not, she reasons, it isn't a basic right.

But states pass laws to improve working conditions in all sorts of ways when Congress drags its feet. The federal minimum wage, for instance, is a pitiful $6.55 an hour. Connecticut lawmakers recognizing that no one could live on that with our sky-high electric rates, expensive rents and generally high cost of living set the state's minimum wage at a slightly more livable $8 an hour. It's the same thing lawmakers could do with paid sick days: Take the lead locally, rather than waiting for clueless congressmen in Montana or Florida to finally realize it's a national problem.

Short of that, Marie and her passengers are facing another germ-ridden year on the big yellow school bus.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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