Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Why we support the New York City Paid Sick Time Act

This week, a coalition of advocacy groups is advocating for the passage of the New York City Paid Sick Time Act. The idea of this act is that all workers deserve paid sick days. It's hard to believe, but only 37% of the lowest paid workers have any paid sick leave available to them. These are the workers who are most likely to be living paycheck to paycheck, and the least likely to be able to afford a day off from work when they or a family member are sick. This is harmful not only to workers and their families, but also to all of us. If a mother can't take time off to care for her sick child, that child may end up going to school and infecting his classmates, and the mother goes to work and passes the infection on to her colleagues as well.

Workers who don't take time off when they or a family member are sick aren't selfish people who don't care about the effects of their behavior on their neighbors. They are people who simply cannot afford to miss even a day of work, or who can't afford a baby sitter for a sick child even for one day. These people suffer, as do their family members.

When I was working in the pediatric emergency department a few years ago, I evaluated a seven-year-old girl who was having a severe asthma attack. She had a history of mild asthma, and usually only needed medications a few times a year, but she was suffering from the kind of attack that I usually see only in children with severe asthma. When I spoke with her mother, she revealed that she had contracted a cold a week earlier, and for the last three days was having more and more trouble breathing.

It was about 11:30 PM. I asked the mom why she hadn't brought her daughter in sooner. Her face immediately fell, and she started crying. She explained that she knew her daughter was sick, but she was unable to change her work schedule. She was a home health aide, a job at the bottom of the pay scale that rarely comes with benefits. She explained that her rent was late and she simply couldn't take an unpaid day off. Unfortunately, because her daughter had been sick for so long before she came to the hospital she required admission overnight. If she had seen her pediatrician earlier that week she likely would have avoided the ED visit and hospitalization entirely.

Yet the consequences of this situation go far beyond the effect on this mother and daughter. Her daughter was in school with a cold for several days, and likely passed it on to her classmates. The mother, while she didn't yet have symptoms, quite likely would get the cold herself and pass it on to her elderly home care patient.

The lack of paid sick days affects all of us, and disproportionately affects the poor. Our families, neighbors, friends, and all of us deserve to be able to take a day off when we're sick and not have to worry about the impact it will have on our economic stability.

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