Speaking of Women's Rights: Would you like some Swine Flu with that latte?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Would you like some Swine Flu with that latte?

Working in the coffee industry taught me a few things about calling in sick: if it didn’t get you fired or written up, it certainly earned you a generous helping of disdain from your fellow baristas, not to mention the extra challenge of getting rent together with a short paycheck. Eight years in the same industry and yet paid sick days were an abstract idea – something that other people enjoyed (which is good, because I probably passed my cold to them more than once).

Thankfully these days are behind me, but for a large number of Americans, lacking paid sick days is a reality. 1 million Washingtonians—48 percent of Washington workers—are not able to take a paid sick day when they are ill, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Fifty-seven million workers are in this same boat nationally.

The recent outbreak of the H1N1 virus, more commonly known as “swine flu”, has called to attention just exactly which industries this issue hits the hardest: the people handling our food. A whopping 86% of food industry workers are unable to take time off to stay home when they’re sick. This raises some fairly obvious questions about the health of our society. Do we really want those that serve us our food to come to work, even when they’re sick? Yet we give them no other option.

Sick leave concerns don’t stop at the issues a pandemic brings to light either. Research has shown, time after time, that employees are more productive and heal faster when they’re allowed paid sick days, resulting in increased productivity (imagine that!). Studies have also shown that children whose parents are able to stay home with them get better faster and do better in school. You can read more about the cost of employees coming to work while ill here.

Mandatory sick leave seems to be a popular idea with voters. San Francisco citizens passed an initiative that required every employer in the city to provide a minimum number of paid sick days, by a margin of 60%. Milwaukee voters approved a similar measure by an even higher 69%. A poll conducted by the Institute For Women’s Policy Research shows that 4 out of 5 Americans believe that paid sick days should be a basic labor standard.

So how do we make this desire a reality? There are currently a number of statewide movements across the nation, from California to Maine. Also up-and-coming is a piece of national legislation, known as “The Healthy Families Act.” You can go here to thank congressional representatives who have sponsored the bill, and encourage those that haven’t to do so.

Eventually our society will come to realize that when workers are given paid sick time, it benefits us all. Then you can stop eyeing your barista suspiciously, checking for sunken eyes and signs of a runny nose.