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Because everyone deserves sick days

One of the many things that used to distinguish freelancing from other forms of employment was the lack of sick days. If you were sick, you either worked anyway, or you didn’t work, and you lost out on a day’s income. That was just how things operated, and you seethed in jealousy at your conventionally employed counterparts with their lavish sick leave. Gosh, you could ‘earn’ a whole sick day a quarter! Alas, in recent years, times have changed, and now paid sick days are extremely unusual. I can only think of one job I’ve ever had with a sick leave policy; even my job with fairly good benefits and extravagant employment terms like paid lunch didn’t offer sick days.

Women, people of colour, and low-income people, groups that experience a considerable overlap, are the most likely to suffer from lack of mandates concerning sick days, because they’re the most likely to work in low-paid jobs in the retail and service sector, and they’re the ones saddled with responsibilities like managing a family and taking care of other household business. The people most likely to need paid sick days, in other words, are the ones least likely to get them, and that’s a serious problem when you consider the fact that 38% of private sector employees can’t access paid sick days. 

And that, plainly, bites, because there are a lot of benefits to paid sick days. For one thing, they increase employee satisfaction and loyalty. For another, they make people more likely to pursue early treatment and preventative care, because they’re provided with the time to do so without the pressure of worrying about loss income. And they protect public health; no sniffling line cooks or plague-ridden waiters, please.

Even businesses win from paid sick days, contrary to claims:

A study of Connecticut’s policy mandating five days of sick leave found that full use of this leave would cost an employer only 0.4 percent of their sales revenue on average. Without paid sick days, employees come to work unhealthy, costing employers $160 billion per year due to lower productivity levels.

That’s right, unhealthy workers cost money because they can’t function as well in the workplace. Which might be why most western nations have a framework in place to provide paid sick days; the benefits outweigh the costs. Furthermore:

San Francisco, the first locality to guarantee paid sick days, experienced few problems with its policy and its economy grew faster than those of surrounding cities once paid sick days were in place.

So not only do individual employers save, but the economy as a whole benefits. This would apparently come as a surprise to Christine Quinn, Democratic Speaker of the New York City Council, who is blocking a paid sick days initiative. Despite the fact that the majority of the council is behind it, New Yorkers want it, and communities around the country are thinking about paid sick leave policies, she apparently thinks that changes to city policy shouldn’t be discussed ‘because of the economy.’

Even though if she’s really concerned about the economic bottom line, she should be promoting paid sick days and joining the huge number of supporters who have rallied behind the bill. They include not just labour unions and organisers, the people you’d naturally expect to be behind such an initiative, but also feminists, racial organisers, public figures, and members of other communities who are directly affected by sick leave policies. That makes the campaign a standout, uniting people in an on the ground action that stands to generate real benefits for everyone.

Quinn is preparing for a Mayoral run, and wants to position herself as the city’s first female and openly gay mayor. She seems to be under the impression that women are going to vote for her no matter what because she’s a woman, logic that I’ve heard before from progressives, and it never fails to leave me unimpressed. Your capacity for fitness in office isn’t based on your gender but your politics, and the decisions voters make about you shouldn’t be based on your gender. Quinn is hurling women workers, particularly women of colour and poor women, under the bus with her staunch refusal to support paid sick days, and she should be punished for that at the polls.

If you want to position yourself as a progressive and woman-friendly candidate, you should be supporting causes that affect women. And you should be throwing your weight behind an initiative with clear feminist implications, especially if you want photos of you being snuggly with Gloria Steinem making their way through the media to lure prospective feminist voters. Quinn’s bullheadedness on this subject is bizarre, unnecessary, and rather enraging; why block something that would be good for her city, good for the economy, and good for the women of New York?

Her positioning makes it look like she’s catering to business, rather than the actual people of the city, and that’s a losing proposition. Not least because some of those people who need paid sick days now might someday become business owners of their own, and telling them they don’t understand how businesses work and how the economy functions is a profound insult. These people need time off now to access health care and take care of their family members, and you’ve got to ask yourself why it is that organisations like the United States Chamber of Commerce, which claims to speak for ‘small businesses,’ lobby against the interests of the true small businesses in the United States.

Like the USCOC, Quinn seems more concerned about medium-to-large businesses interested in expanding without having to pay for it, rather than small operations that need actual economic support. You’re worried about the burden of paid sick days on companies with a handful of employees? Why not make it easier for them to access grants or other community support so they can grow and establish themselves in the market, and treat their employees fairly in the process.

And feminists should be joining the organising around paid sick days, because it’s an issue with important implications for their community. Seeing this campaign attract major feminist support is a watershed moment, but it needs to be braced from the ground, too.


  1. Anita wrote:

    Thank you so much for posting about the fight for paid sick days in NYC (and around the country)! This is so important for everyone, especially caregivers and families.

    Monday, August 20, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Permalink
  2. Kevin wrote:

    This is an awesome post. It’s also worth pointing out that in every other high-income country and in most other countries, there are established legal rights to paid sick time. The United States is part of a very small, very unimpressive cadre of losers on this issue.

    Monday, August 20, 2012 at 11:28 pm | Permalink
  3. Sara wrote:

    Obviously I agree with the site, and would love for all new yorkers (and everyone else) to have paid sick leave.

    However, this quote: “A study of… mandating five days of sick leave found that full use of this leave would cost an employer only 0.4 percent of their sales revenue on average. Without paid sick days, employees come to work unhealthy, costing employers $160 billion per year due to lower productivity levels.” That’s comparing apples to oranges. You can’t say .4% and then a total number (160B) without knowing what that .4% is in total numbers, or what the 160B is in percentage terms, or even what that means for the individual company. It could be that they have run cost-benefit analyses on it, and paid sick leave isn’t financially worth it, which is why it would be so important to mandate it. Or, maybe it’s even more worth it, so there is also an economic argument for doing the right thing.

    Tuesday, August 21, 2012 at 12:34 am | Permalink
  4. Glauke wrote:

    I’m a temp in The Netherlands, which means that my first sick day is not paid. But the rest of my leave is! I am still shocked that USians have to fight for this -what I consider- a basic right.

    Tuesday, August 21, 2012 at 3:41 am | Permalink
  5. melissa wrote:

    canada also doesn’t legally impose sick days. I didn’t even know that such a thing existed until I met my partner!

    Tuesday, August 21, 2012 at 12:10 pm | Permalink
  6. Siobhan wrote:

    I moved to Austria (Vienna) from the US a year ago, and the way they handle sick leave is… your insurance covers it. Yup. Your health insurance pays for your sick time. The upshot of this is that you MUST get a doctor’s note for being out. However, so very many doctors here have open office hours, and convenient ones. People regularly are out for a week in the fall with the flu, and it’s NORMAL.

    Sunday, September 9, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Permalink