The highest earners are most likely to have paid sick days and, among the top 10 percent, almost 90 percent can count on being able to stay home when ill and not see their pay docked. In contrast, this is true for only 19 percent of those in the bottom 10 percent and a third of those in the bottom quartile of earners.
I went to the doctor today. Not a big deal – just a regular check up. I’m a lawyer who works for a non-profit and I can generally make a doctor’s appointment when I need one, or even preventive check-ups like this one. That’s not true for a lot of Americans. Excluding those serving in the military, more than one-third of the workforce—and three-quarters of low- income workers—lacks paid sick leave.
A lot of us may take it for granted that we can stay home when we are sick—or even when a child is sick — and we certainly can slip out to make a doctor’s appointment. The highest earners are most likely to have paid sick days and, among the top 10 percent, almost 90 percent can count on being able to stay home when ill and not see their pay docked. In contrast, this is true for only 19 percent of those in the bottom 10 percent and a third of those in the bottom quartile of earners. Just an unpaid day or two off for illness can wreak havoc on a budget where every penny counts. Workers without paid sick leave earn a median wage of $10 per hour compared to those who do have such leave, whose median hourly wage is $19. Illness, like the birth of a child, can push families on the margins into bankruptcy. If workers cannot afford to—or are not permitted to—stay home, they will come to work, and that has its own costs: loss of productivity as well as infected coworkers, who also will not be able to take time off to recover.
For those people who complain when sick preschoolers go to school and make their children ill, this inconvenience is another shared societal cost of parents without sick leave because if a low-wage worker stays home to tend to a sick child or to him- or herself, the consequences may be dire, as workers may lose their jobs or be otherwise penalized. According to a study published by the Economic Policy Institute, “Sixteen percent of American workers report that they or a family member have lost a job or been otherwise punished, or that they would be fired, for taking time off work to care for a sick family member or their own illness.”
Despite the clear need for sick leave (who wants a cook sneezing on their hamburger or a colleagues spreading germs from the next cubicle at work or a teacher coughing in their children’s schoolroom?) and the popular support for legislation mandating some paid sick time, business lobbyists have succeeded in getting ten states to ban cities, counties, and other subdivisions from even adopting such policies. Funded by the Koch brothers and Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, business groups have fought sick leave across the country. The shadowy American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which is responsible for much of the noxious legislation at the state and local level, from stand-your-ground laws to requirements for photo IDs for voting, drafted the very first anti–sick leave bill in Wisconsin. Joining with the National Federation of Independent Business and the National Restaurant Association, ALEC has helped galvanize corporate America, getting even companies that provide paid sick days to their own employees to put money into fighting local efforts.
For those of us who can make time in the day to get a flu shot, have our teeth cleaned or have an annual mammogram, prostate exam or skin check, let’s remember that for many other Americans it isn’t just lack of access to health insurance that has harmed their health but lack of access to time to seek medical help.
Caroline Fredrickson is the president of the American Constitution Society. She is the author of Under The Bus: How Working Women Are Being Run Over.