Success in San Francisco with Paid Sick Days

Policymakers can respond to scary statistics that paint a misleading picture of whathappen -- or they can examine the success with paid sick days that alreadyhappened in San Francisco.
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In honor of National Work and Family Month, America should consider the experience of San Francisco in regard to paid sick days.

After fifteen minutes in line at the pharmacy, the clerk called me forward to purchase my prescription.

But something was wrong: Her brown eyes were tinged . . . red. Her complexion was . . . clammy.

It was December, and my service clerk looked like a walking advertisement for influenza.

"Are you sick?", I asked, suppressing an urge to run.

And even though this was a hospital where staff serve people who are sick or dying or their caregivers, I kept my cool and added: "I don't mean to be rude, but I have someone at home in congestive heart failure. I can't bring home the flu."

"I'm sick," she acknowledged. "I'll get you another clerk."

Stunned, I asked: "Don't you have paid sick leave?"

"No, I'm on contract," she replied. "We don't get sick leave."

And that was the end of our conversation. I stepped to the service aisle on my left, did a quick scan of my new clerk to check for symptoms, and seeing nothing but a healthy young man, purchased my meds and went home.

But here's something I'm not proud of: Though incredulous, I did absolutely nothing to raise the issue or safeguard the health of other pharmacy customers. I didn't send an email to my physician. I didn't write a letter to my health plan.

Like most family caregivers, I was over-worked, stressed, worried about finances and tethered to home. These are not the characteristics of an advocate who can take on an institutional challenge.

But I've never forgotten.

In the three years since, I've often wondered what would have happened if I had brought the flu home to my desperately ill family member.

And I've pondered the financial and psychological calculations that would cause a respected medical institution to have personnel policies that could endanger the health of its patients.

I just don't get it.

It's fair to argue that the young woman made a poor choice to work while she was sick, but it was the hospital that had the contract with my health plan and markets itself as a leading health care provider.

It is from this personal experience that I view today's coast-to-coast battle over whether or not we should have laws requiring paid sick days.

Proponents include women's organizations, labor groups, and public health organizations. Opponents include large business associations, like the National Federation of Independent Business and local and state Chambers of Commerce.

Proponents argue that minor increases in employer costs for paid sick days are offset by creating workplaces with more productive and loyal employees less likely to leave and less likely to spread an illness to other workers.

Proponents also make the case for fairness, that a greater number of middle- and upper-middle class workers have paid sick days, and this same benefit should be offered to lower-wage employees, mostly working in restaurants, hotels, and retail outfits.

And then there's the public health arguments which affect all of us -- that businesses have an ethical responsibility to take reasonable measures to ensure their employees don't make their customers sick and that adopting these preventive measures should be accepted as a basic cost of doing business.

Business groups claim that paid sick days laws are "job killers" that will lead to exorbitant business expenses, job losses and damage to the economy.

In California, the National Federation of Independent Business Research Foundation claims a statewide paid sick days requirement would result in the loss of 370,000 jobs and would cost businesses $63.9 billion in expenses and lost sales.

A business group called the Partnership for New York City recently released a study predicting a paid sick days ordinance would cost Big Apple businesses at least $789 million.

Proponents of paid sick days critique these scary statistics as inflated and methodologically flawed estimates and point to the real life success in San Francisco where a paid sick days ordinance has been operating for nearly four years.

Who's right?

Kevin Westlye, Executive Director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, estimates that the cost of paid sick days for his members has been 40-45 cents an hour per employee, resulting in some "belt tightening" for restaurants and some minor shift changes for employees. But there have been no major lay-offs or restaurant closures attributed to paid sick days.

And, according to Westlye, there has been no rash of reports that employees are abusing the benefit, taking sick leave for sports events or social engagements.

Moreover, research by the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy has shown that after adoption of the paid sick days ordinance, San Francisco County's labor market performed better than surrounding counties that did not require leave.

In short, the paid sick days ordinance in San Francisco has not led to extraordinary costs or job losses. It's worked - even in the midst of the Great Recession.

Quoted this past June in Bloomberg Businessweek, Westlye summed up the best argument for paid sick days: "Do you want your server coughing over your food?"

Definitely not.

Nor do we want pharmacy clerks, sick with the flu, serving hundreds of customers.

Policymakers can respond to scary statistics that paint a misleading picture of what might happen -- or they can examine the success with paid sick days that already has happened in San Francisco.

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