Organizing for paid sick days: How worker rights can be a public health issue

March 21, 2013

The worse of the flu season maybe over, and experts are looking back to see how the flu shot did this year. But one Chicago group is focusing on a different way that viruses get spread and how the Illinois legislature can change it by giving workers sick days.

Nataki Rhodes works in food service. She’s had jobs in cafes, catering, and restaurants.  This winter, when the flu virus was raging, she’d turn on the TV and hear anchors telling people who were sick to stay home. She’d roll her eyes and think, “Really? Stay home? That’s easy to say. Sick  days don’t apply to me.”

Rhodes says as a low wage worker, she can’t afford to stay at home without pay. And even whe she has stayed home, her bosses sometimes discipline her.

“In the business I am in it clearly states don’t to come work sick. When I took my food and sanitation test, that’s the main thing that’s on the test. But the people I work for? That goes right out the window,” says Rhodes.

According to a recent survey, over 90 percent of restaurant workers don’t have paid sick leave. About 40 percent of workers overall don’t.

That’s why Rhodes is working with ROC United, a restaurant workers union. Last year they were a part of a coalition that pushed a bill in the Illinois legislature. Workers would earn one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, for a maximum of seven sick days a year.

The obvious push back was employers who say it would cost too much. The Illinois Restaurant Association wouldn’t comment for this story, despite weeks of requests.

Melissa Josephs is the Director of Equal Opportunity Policy at Women Employed, one of the lead organizations on the campaign. She says employers  think about the cost but not the benefits of giving sick days.

For example, Josephs says, “There are a lot of employers that say [you have to come in], we don’t give sick days. Its like you are not showing up. [Workers] get fired.”

She says training new employees to fill those positions is more expensive than just having a sick leave policy. Then there is the issue of spreading the illness to fellow employees and customers. 

In Los Vegas there was a case where a hotel worker had the Norovirus, the most common stomach bug.

“They infected 12 hundred guests and workers. And there was a jury that imposed 25 million dollars in damages to the hotel because they said the outbreak could have been prevented by having an appropriate sick leave policy,” says Josephs.

But employers say right now, with the economy still tight, any additional cost could threaten layoffs. Despite the push back from employers, many politicians were in support of  the legislation when it was proposed in the Illinois legislature.

But there was another catch that killed the bill.

Bills have what we call “fiscal notes.” Basically they explain how much the bill might cost the government. Usually it’s something like a program needs funding. But it was little different in this case.

Some people contracted by the Illinois government don’t currently receive sick days. After this legislation, they would.

So a fiscal note was attached the bill, that basically assumed the worst case scenario: that every one of these workers would earn and take the full maximum of seven days. 

“Adding multi-million dollar deficit It’s not really going to encourage this new bill from passing,” said Melissa Josephs.

Josephs says the one good thing about this year's monster flu, is it gave them leverage to revisit sick leave legislation.

A bill is currently in both the U.S. Senate and Congress to give all workers access to paid sick days.  And Josephs hopes Illinois will consider taking state level action.

But most important, Rhodes says, is customer awareness. “People don’t know what is going on behind closed doors. All you know is a smile. Thank you.  I’m not going to say, 'Oh hi, I am not feeling well today... achoo...”

To see if your favorite restaurant voluntarily offers sick leave, you can visit ROC’s online dining guide.