Paid Sick Leave Is Fast Becoming A Right -- Not A Privilege

“Companies are going to start offering this just because their competitors are doing it and their workers will expect it.”

It’s getting harder for your boss to get away with not offering paid sick leave.

That’s of course good news for the many workers, mostly hourly and low-paid, who either lose money when they’re ill or wind up coming to work sick. It’s also a welcome development for those of us who don’t want to shop or eat at businesses with a lot of sick employees running around.

On Labor Day, President Barack Obama announced that starting in 2017, federal contractors must provide workers with paid sick time. Obama's executive order provides one hour of leave for every 30 hours of work for up to seven paid sick days a year. 

This won’t directly affect a ton of people -- about 300,000 workers, according to the White House -- but its impact could be far more widespread, transforming paid sick leave from a privileged benefit for salaried, white-collar workers to a basic right for everyone. 

“The executive order is another brick in the wall that will get us to a new workplace standard all across the country,” Dan Cantor, national director of the Working Families Party, told The Huffington Post on Tuesday. “Companies are going to start offering this just because their competitors are doing it and their workers will expect it.”

Cantor, whose organization has helped lead the charge on the paid leave movement, used the hypothetical example of a McDonald’s on an Army base. Once it starts offering the benefit “the word will spread,” he said. Soon more McDonald’s workers and other fast-food workers could demand this. Competitors would be forced to keep up.

Just a decade ago, there were no laws on the books in the U.S. that required employers to pay when workers missed a day due to illness or a family emergency. Obama’s order caps off years of massive progress in the paid sick leave arena.

Three states and 15 municipalities passed sick leave laws this year and last year, including Massachusetts, California, Oregon, Philadelphia and Newark.  At the same time, a range of businesses have taken the initiative and started offering it.

Sooner or later, this will be the law of the land. Why not just do it?

Chipotle earlier this year announced it would offer its workers paid sick leave, a relief to anyone looking to nosh on a germ-free burrito bowl. The Mexican chain operates in many of the locales that have passed the new laws and is an example of what paid leave supporters are hoping to see happen in the business sector: Companies see the change coming and move proactively.

"Sooner or later, this will be the law of the land. Why not just do it?" said Ellen Bravo, an executive director at Family Values at Work, which has been pushing for the new laws.

The nation’s largest private employer, Walmart, said earlier this year that it was reconsidering its policy on sick leave. Right now, full-time hourly associates who want a sick day must dip into their vacation time to take their first day of sick leave. Only after that does paid sick leave kick in. Part-time workers get no sick days at all.

A Chipotle worker, who's presumably not sick, prepares a burrito.
A Chipotle worker, who's presumably not sick, prepares a burrito.

Facebook and Microsoft both announced this year that they’ll only do business with contractors and suppliers that offer paid sick leave.

Offering paid leave is a good business practice, leading to a “happier and more productive workforce,” wrote Brad Smith, a Microsoft vice president, in a blog post.

There’s a wide body of research out there supporting Smith’s point: Studies have shown that workers with access to paid sick days are less likely to get injured on the job or to expose their coworkers to contagious illnesses, as HuffPost's Jonathan Cohn noted earlier this year. 

Paid sick leave is a fairly standard benefit for high-paid, salaried workers -- about 82 percent of management and professional workers in the private sector are paid when they're sick, according to the Labor Department. It's far more rare for low-paid workers: Just 40 percent of private-sector service workers receive paid sick leave. 

Workers in the hospitality industry -- who are interacting with the public every day -- are among the least likely to be able to take a paid sick day. 

While business owners fret that offering the new benefit would come at great cost, a study that looked at Connecticut’s businesses after the state passed its law in 2011 showed very minimal impact.

Obama’s used executive orders before to set workplace standards, such as raising the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 last year. But there’s a long history of presidents issuing executive orders that raised the bar on workplace and societal norms. In 1948, President Harry Truman issued an executive order desegregating the national armed forces, setting a new standard at the time. 

Perhaps Obama has done the same.