The flu is raging across the country this winter, sending more Americans to the doctor than in any season in almost a decade. Across 48 states and Puerto Rico, the flu is “widespread” according to the CDC — so if you haven’t been sick yet, count yourself as lucky. Its acting-director said “We are on track to break some recent records.”
For hourly wage workers, the threat of the flu is especially terrifying. Taking a day off to recover from the flu, or even a simple cold, too often equals the loss of an entire day’s pay, and can even put a worker’s job at risk. Staying home to care for a sick child? The same. For many Americans without paid sick leave, getting ill means having to choose between their paycheck and their health.
Low-wage workers are hit the hardest by the lack of comprehensive paid leave. While 92 percent of Americans among the top 10 percent of wage earners receive paid sick days, just one-third of those in the bottom 10 percent can say the same, according to the BLS National Compensation Survey.
And with the federal minimum wage sitting at $7.25 an hour, minimum wage employees miss out on nearly 60 dollars if they need to stay home sick during an 8-hour shift, a huge loss for people who need to count every penny. In real terms, it translates into one tank of gas, 2 bags of diapers, 10 frozen meals, or 15 cartons of milk. It can force people to turn off their heat in the winter to save money.
But the impact goes well beyond the well-being of an individual worker. When people lack paid sick time they are far more likely to go to work ill, potentially infecting others, who themselves then face the same conundrum. They are more likely to get hurt on the job, and sick workers reduce productivity, harming business profitability. Paid sick time is not only the humane solution — it’s an economic imperative and a public health necessity.
As an issue, making sure workers have paid sick leave is as close to a no-brainer as you can find. Polling shows extremely strong support for providing workers with paid sick leave, in most cases more than 70 percent, because as a people, Americans have both compassion for their fellow citizen and a rational understanding that sick workers are harmful to business. It’s just one more indictment of our broken political system that only seven states plus the District of Columbia have guaranteed paid sick leave.
Thankfully, we’re starting to see voters step up and fight for commonsense paid sick leave where most states and the federal government have failed. In 2016, people in Arizona and Washington state approved paid sick leave laws through ballot initiatives. And in Michigan, Michigan Time to Care has introduced a ballot measure for November 2018 that would provide workers nine days of annual paid sick leave, protecting Michiganders from being fired or losing pay if they are ill or need to care for an ailing child or family member.
As the flu devastates the health of workers across the country, it would be logical to assume that policymakers would clearly see the need to fix the glaring gaps in our current paid leave policies. It would be logical, and it would also be DEAD WRONG. Everyday Americans are the ones who are hurt by a lack of paid sick leave, and in most cases, it will be up to us to use direct democracy and our votes to fix it.