By Morgan Carroll
published in the Boulder Daily Camera Tuesday, June 2, 2009
As the panic over H1N1 swine flu gives way to more reasoned precaution, Colorado has learned a very important lesson: We all have a shared responsibility for ensuring that our communities are healthy. And when our communities are threatened, we all need to step up and do what we can.
As members of the Colorado Legislature, both past and present, we believe there is more we can do to protect our public health and protect our economy. We can send a message that the citizens, businesses and elected officials of the state of Colorado support paid sick days for every worker.
In response to the risk of a pandemic flu outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a list of actions Americans should take to stay healthy. The CDC asked everyone who might be experiencing flu symptoms to stay home from work or school in order to limit contact with others and reduce the spread of contagions.
Likewise, President Barack Obama, in an appearance with President Felipe Calderon of Mexico, discussed the unpredictability of the threatened pandemic, and made recommendations for how communities should respond: “We urge employers to allow infected employees to take as many sick days as necessary,” Obama said. “(W)e’ve also recommended that both parents and businesses think about contingency plans if children do have to stay home.”
We know that it’s not that simple. At least 43 percent of Colorado workers lack paid sick days, and nationally, 70 percent of workers are unable to stay home with a sick child. Without paid sick days, workers are forced to choose between going to work sick and losing much-needed income, or possibly their jobs.
In service industries that employ low-wage workers, like restaurants, 86 percent of workers lack paid sick days. Not coincidentally, nearly half of all stomach- “flu” related viruses, such as the norovirus, are linked to ill food-service workers. In 2008, when a worker at a restaurant in Kent, Ohio had no choice but to go to work sick with the norovirus, more than 500 people became violently ill. It cost the Kent community between $130,000 and $305,000.
Clearly, working while sick contributes to the spread of diseases like H1N1 swine flu. And while that resonates with most of us, there is another factor which specifically concerns business owners: the economic cost of ill employees on the job.
Studies have shown that when sick workers are on the job it costs our national economy $180 billion a year in profits and lost productivity. However, if workers were offered seven paid sick days a year, Colorado businesses would save $10.54 per worker per week. These savings would come from reduced turnover, lower productivity losses and a healthier workforce. Costs for wages, payroll taxes, and administrative expenses would be lower — $7.52 per worker per week - which means Colorado businesses would save money by offering paid sick days, (according to Dr. Vicky Lovell, “Valuing Good Health: An Estimate of Costs and Savings for the Healthy Families Act.”)
Paid sick days make good business sense, and we’re not the only ones who think so. Kevin Westlye, Director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, helped San Francisco restaurants when citizens voted to implement paid sick days in 2007. He noted that “sick leave is one issue where people just looked at adjusting their policies and moved on. It hasn’t been a big issue.”
We ask workers to take responsibility and stay home if they’re sick. We ask parents to keep their sick children home from school. But in order for this to be possible, we must also ask businesses to offer their workers paid sick days.
As current and retired elected officials in Colorado, we strongly urge all businesses to step up and take part in the shared responsibility of ensuring a healthy community, and a vibrant marketplace, by offering access to paid sick days for every worker in the state.
Morgan Carroll is Colorado State Senator, District 29. This guest opinion was also signed by seven members and one former member of the Colorado legislature.