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Having to work while ill is sick policy

A bill passed by the Connecticut Legislature earlier this month was denounced before the vote by House Republican leader Larry Cafero as "the absolutely worst thing we could do."

What do you think that was? What was the absolute worst legislation that could possibly be passed in the eyes of the state's Republican leadership?

The answer: a bill that provides low-paid service sector workers with sick leave.

The new law will give workers such as cashiers, hotel maids, waiters and security guards in businesses that employ 50 or more people one hour of paid sick time for every 40 hours worked, up to five sick days per year.

Statistics show that 75 percent of low-wage workers are not given a single sick day off. That means restaurant staff is coming to work with the flu and serving you food; and infectious nursing home attendants are caring for Grandma.

The question isn't how Connecticut could pass something like this — it's why isn't mandatory paid sick leave federal law for every worker in the country?

Maybe it's because Republican lawmakers and the business community treated Connecticut's modest measure as if it were the coming of the Red Army. They vehemently condemned it, warning of inevitable job losses.

But what America needs is more good jobs. The kinds of jobs that provide a semblance of economic security, as opposed to those with low pay and no sick leave that leave workers at constant risk of financial calamity.

America's epidemic of bad jobs is one reason that, as a recent study showed, nearly half of Americans said they either definitely or probably couldn't come up with $2,000 in 30 days without pawning possessions or selling their home. Too much of this country, including a material part of the middle class, is living on the financial edge. The emotional strain has serious implications for the wider economy.

Economist Christian Weller says mandatory paid sick leave as public policy makes perfect sense. Offering it costs employers relatively little, yet it means substantial economic security for the individual. And "taking that worry away from people has enormous economic consequences," says Weller, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts.

It translates into people having a longer view of their lives and careers. They are likely to save more, make more investments in themselves, as well as take risks and become more entrepreneurial, Weller says.

Hidden in proworker policies that reduce the economic risks of life for individuals are significant macroeconomic gains to the wider economy.

That's why this deficit-cutting frenzy in Washington is such shortsighted and counterproductive economic medicine. The old, confident, economically vigorous America won't be resurrected by zeroing out Planned Parenthood money or funds for public broadcasting. It will only return when Washington focuses again on the right priorities, which means easing economic stresses for everyday people.

The federal government should be creating good jobs by investing in infrastructure and energy independence — meaning more government spending. It should be implementing policies that push employers toward picking up more of worker health care and retirement costs. The scales need to be rebalanced. The risks of life cannot continue to be shifted off employers and onto workers' narrow shoulders.

Corporate profits have been hitting record levels, with productivity soaring and companies sitting on an estimated $1 trillion. But workers are not benefiting, because there is no powerful interest — not unions or government — demanding they do.

This is where President Barack Obama should be making a stand. This is what the Democrats in Congress should be talking about every day, rather than what federal program they will join Republicans in cutting.

In this world 117 nations guarantee workers a week or more of paid sick days per year. But to Connecticut Republicans, giving those guarantees to day care workers or fast food cooks is "the absolutely worst thing."

No wonder America is looking so bleak for Americans.

Having to work while ill is sick policy 06/11/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 11, 2011 4:30am]
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