Can You Be Forced to Work When Sick?

Consumer protection, Healthcare

working sickNew Florida law blocks efforts to give low-wage workers the basic benefit that tends to come standard in virtually every other industrialized country in the world — that of taking time off when sick. Local Florida governments are now banned from requiring employers to offer paid sick leave.

Businesses argue that paid sick leave causes too many problems. Major corporations and industry groups supporting the legislation (think Disney, McDonalds, Red Lobster,  Taco Bell, Olive Garden, KFC, Pizza Hut) defensively say that paid sick leave is too expensive as is slashes productivity and profit margins, leading to business closures.

Can You Lose Your Job for Staying Home Sick?

Every state but Montana is an “at will” employment state, meaning you can be fired for just about anything — including staying out sick. Unless you have a certifiable disability, you could be fired for staying home with the plague for even just a day or two, doctor’s note or no doctor’s note.

Who’s Behind the Problem

The Florida law is the most recent in a series of victories overriding measures that would provide this benefit to workers in low-wage industries. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) — a prominent enemy of employee rights — boasts membership including a range of major corporations and industry groups. The corporate-funded organization’s legislation disallows municipalities from enacting their own paid leave laws.

Why Paid Sick Leave Is Important

Obviously lack of paid sick leave poses a major public health threat in the restaurant industry; nearly 80 percent of food service workers lack paid sick leave, and at least half report going to work while ill out of fear of losing their jobs. A recent CDC study found that sick workers were responsible for more than half and possibly as much as 80 percent of all stomach flu outbreaks.

More than 80 percent of people making less than $8.25 an hour have no sick leave — and way too many are women. Paid sick leave is a key women’s issue, since women are increasingly the primary breadwinners for many families, yet still the primary caregivers for children. They are most often the one responsible for taking a sick kid to the doctor, so the inability to take paid sick leave affects women disproportionately.

Hope for Paid Sick Days?

The Healthy Families Act, which would create a national sick leave policy, has been reintroduced to Congress every year for a decade and gone nowhere. However, some states are having small victories in protecting the right to paid sick days. New York recently became the fifth city to guarantee the right to earned paid sick days, following the lead of San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Seattle, and Portland (Oregon)–as well as Connecticut (where, sadly, legislation is already in the works to weaken paid sick leave again). However, the National Partnership for Women & Families is continuing to push for the Healthy Families Act and for standardized national paid sick days.