Speaking of Women's Rights: Serving up some theories on the paid sick days discussion

Friday, May 27, 2011

Serving up some theories on the
paid sick days discussion

The current debate over whether or not workers should have a minimum standard of paid sick days is not a new one. A national bill, The Healthy Families Act, was proposed in 2009 and a handful of cities and states have followed suit with similar proposals.

What baffles me in the current debate over a paid sick days proposal in Seattle is the absence of voices from those this policy is meant to protect: Those who are truly affected by a lack of sick days seem to be silent, and with plenty of folks willing to speak for them. Doesn’t this make sense though? When your boss is out there hollering about the negative impact of a minimum standard of sick and safe days, wouldn’t fear of retaliation keep you from speaking out in favor?

Dave Meinert, owner of Big Mario’s Pizza and The Five Point CafĂ© claims that his employees don’t want paid sick days. Having worked in the service industry for over 10 years, my immediate feeling was that this can’t be true. Just to be sure I wasn’t off base, I decided to call my friend who has put in a similar number of years to the industry. It just so happens that she had to work her shift as a server at a local restaurant the other day with a 102 degree fever. Not only does she disagree with Meinert’s assessment, she told me that everyone at her restaurant feels the same way. The only problem? None of them are about to risk their jobs in order to make a point.

Opponents in the restaurant industry claim that there’s no need for paid sick days because workers can simply swap shifts when they’re ill. This makes me wonder if the folks who believe this have ever sat by the phone, feeling like death and running down the entire list of your coworkers, wondering if you’re going to have to work while running to the bathroom to throw up. Also worth pointing out is that this policy will not stop the practice of shift swapping. It’s simply a minimum standard that helps those for whom shift swapping is not a possibility (in the restaurant industry and outside of it).

There are a lot of numbers being thrown out there in this debate. Washington Restaurant Association president Anthony Anton says offering paid sick days could cost restaurants up to $175,000 a year. He fails to mention that for most restaurants, the cost would be much less. He also claims that “for every $1,000 increase in the cost of doing business, a restaurant needs an additional $20,000 in sales just to break even.” In math class, we were taught to show our work; I don’t know how on earth these numbers could make any sense, but I would love for Mr. Anton to show us.

Regardless of what the numbers say, however, I think that Meinert and others opposed to a paid sick days policy are missing a very important part of the bottom line: When you treat your workers well, they are more productive, dedicated, and loyal. When they are healthy, they are more productive dedicated and loyal. It’s just common sense that when a worker is able to stay home from work, they get better much faster. There are also studies that talk about lost revenue as a result of workers going to work when they’re ill.

All of this said, what’s really perplexing to me is why, while the restaurant industry employs roughly 28,000 out of 370,000 in our city, it’s the only workplace we’re talking about. All of the recent articles that have come out around paid sick days inevitably devolve into a discussion of their effect on small restaurants. It’s fine to have this discussion, but let’s remember that we’re talking about a need that exists for a lot of people, over a wide array of industries.

I think that protecting workers by requiring employers to offer a minimum number of paid sick days is the way to go. I understand that not everyone feels the same way, but this is what I ask: That we step back for a moment and look at the big picture. That we step away from our ideas about our own restaurant; our own profit-margin; and our own experiences. That we stop speaking for other people and start listening.