Employees Better Not Get Sick

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Between the time you start your first full-time job until the day you retire, you are not allowed to get sick, not once, not ever.

That’s the message from Florida Governor Rick Scott, who just signed a bill banning local governments in that state from passing legislation requiring employers to provide employee’s sick leave.

My question is – What took you so long? The illustrious governor of my state of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, signed a similar bill into law over a month ago. At this rate it will take forever to turn the clock back to the Dickensian nightmare of the Industrial Revolution. The so-called Gilded Age, when workers lived in overcrowded tenements and died under unsafe working conditions so that a wealthy few (the “Job Creators”) could live lives of luxury.

I was especially glad Governor Walker signed this bill when I was in a chain fast food restaurant the other day and heard one of the food preparers coughing up a dead cat. Who cares if I get influenza, as long as my food comes quick and cheap.

Then again, if I do get sick, I have paid sick time, and an employer whose response to me calling in is, “Okay, take it easy. Hope you’re feeling better soon,” and not, “If you don’t come in today, don’t come back at all.”

Employers argue that sick leave is too costly, and that in order to recoup those costs, they would have to cut jobs. That makes no sense: We don’t have enough employees working because they are calling in sick, so the answer is to hire fewer people and have an even smaller staff.

The cost argument doesn’t hold up to facts. According to researches at Cornell University, sick employees at work cost actually more than sick employees who stay home. Sick workers aren’t as productive, more prone to error and spread illness to coworkers.

In San Fransisco, the local government mandated that employers provide sick leave back in 2006. Guess what? The streetcars didn’t run off their tracks, the Golden Gate didn’t collapse into San Francisco Bay, the Transamerica Pyramid didn’t topple into a heap of rubble. Employees have seen a benefit. Direct cost to employers have been much lower than expected, and indirect costs have decreased due to higher morale, healthier employees and lower turnover. San Francisco’s unemployment rate is about 2 percentage points lower than the national average, and about 1.5 percentage points lower than Wisconsin and Florida.

So if paid sick leave is such a benefit, why do we need to have laws mandating it? Why don’t employers simply provide it because it makes sense?

Many employers do. However, there are still a fair number who do not. Only half of US workers earn paid sick leave, and only one-third can use it for sick children. The statistics are even lower for the lowest paid workers – those who arguably need it most. A lack of sick leave also tends to hurt women more than men, since women are usually the caregivers for sick children and elderly parents.

The employers who resist such laws do it, not because it’s bad business, but because they don’t want the government telling them how to run their organizations. They are like the individuals who see seat belt laws as an intrusion on personal liberties, even though wearing a seat belt is only a minor inconvenience and has saved countless lives.

As a manager for over twenty years, I know first hand that unexpected absences can sometimes be problematic. I’ve worked half staff because several people called in sick on the same day. I’ve had an employee call in because he was having an “Angry Day”. I’ve had to fire someone because they were repeatedly too hungover to come into to work. I get it. It can cause staffing headaches and there are those who abuse the benefit. But these problems can be mitigated with a positive, team-oriented work environment and clear performance expectations. Engaged, dedicated and motivated employees don’t call in sick unless its necessary (Usually, they come in sick and you have to send them home). Show me a workplace where unexcused absences run rampant, and I’ll show you a lousy place to work.

In one of the best (or worst) cases of spin I’ve heard in a long time, one article on Wisconsin’s law stated that it would create uniformity throughout the state regarding medical and family leave standards. It didn’t mention that this uniformity was anti-worker, anti-woman and pro-greed. These are the same politicians that decry Federal mandates because local governments know what is best for their communities. Seems the only time they want uniformity is when they get to decide what that uniformity will be.


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