Enact paid sick leave in Austin

Samian Quazi

Seattle joined Washington D.C. and San Francisco on Sept. 12 in requiring most businesses to provide paid sick leave to employees. Sick leave is a hot political issue debated nationwide, and the blockbuster hit “Contagion” has only fueled the debate. The Austin City Council should now ensure our residents enjoy these same benefits as Seattle’s by passing comparable legislation.

The Seattle law grants paid sick leave based on a company’s size and hours worked by the employee, according to The Seattle Times. Businesses with the equivalent of five to 49 full-time employees will be required to provide five paid sick days annually. Sick leave would accrue at a rate of one hour for every 40 hours worked. Companies with larger pools of employees would be required to provide successively higher numbers of sick days, up to nine days annually. And the law promotes fledgling start-ups by exempting businesses less than two years old.

The central argument behind paid sick leave is that employees who cannot afford to lose a day’s wages or risk being fired for staying home pose a serious public health hazard when they show up for work. Food servers, bank tellers and university professors alike can easily spread infective pathogens such as the flu virus and the cold when they show up for work rather than rest at home.

UT administrators have long understood that healthy staff is a must for a vibrant and safe university. According to UT’s Human Resource Services website, non-student employees who work at least 20 hours weekly for 4.5 months qualify for sick leave. UT also set in place guidelines for accruing paid sick leave and includes provisions for using sick days to care for ill immediate family members.

Most Austinites in the private-sector are unfortunately bereft of similar benefits. Paid sick leave and its concomitant faster recovery time at home will give Austin families the peace of mind to leave work to pick up a sick child from school and care for them. If our city council can frame a law similar to Seattle’s, Austin victims of domestic abuse would be able to take days off to go to court or assist law enforcement, according to Fox News.

Such legislation would have to be narrowly construed to prevent employees from using paid sick days other than its intended purposes. Two years ago the Austin American-Statesman reported that the city had paid out $2.1 million to departing police officers whose union had negotiated payouts for unused sick time. Four officers were paid nearly $100,000 simply for retiring without using their granted sick days.

The council should explicitly prohibit such an abuse if it were to require sick leave on Austin businesses. Employees shouldn’t be paid for unused sick time as a reward for perfect attendance. That reward should be reflected in glowing employee reviews and a workplace culture that favors punctuality and diligence as factors for promotion and salary increases. Paid sick leave is a crucial benefit that should be protected from systemic abuse.

Americans are increasingly aware of the health risks of lacking a paid leave policy. The film “Contagion” sensationalizes the rapid spread of a virus among the general public and has served as fodder for debate on whether communities are adequately prepared for public health epidemics.

The consensus among public health officials is that the best thing for an employee to do is to stay home. In fact, the U.S. economy loses an estimated $180 billion annually from diminished productivity when sick employees come to work.

Reforms on paid sick days are long overdue. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the United States is “the only country among 22 countries ranked highly in terms of economic and human development that does not guarantee that workers receive paid sick days or paid sick leave.”

Indeed, competitive developed nations such as Germany and Australia have comparably generous paid sick leave policies, while we have none. And such a system is not that costly. A Bureau of Labor Statistics report “estimates that private firms dish out 23 cents an hour to provide sick leave. It’s only 8 cents in the service sector,” according to a Sept. 14 Forbes column.

And any argument that paid sick leave translates to less job growth is clearly unsubstantiated. The Drum Major Institute for Public Policy analyzed the aftermath of San Francisco’s paid sick leave law in 2007. This was when the recession was still in its early stages. The report found that San Francisco job growth has consistently been higher than in neighboring counties without such a law.

The evidence overwhelmingly indicates any cost incurred by Austin businesses implementing paid sick leave is well worth the benefit. For just 23 cents an hour (eight in the service sector!), City Council can improve workplace standards, public health and family care while maintaining business growth.

Quazi is a nursing graduate student.