DesLauriers: Paid sick days should be a public health priority

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Lindsay DesLauriers, an advocate at Voices for Vermont’s Children, who lives in Charlotte and has a 5-year-old daughter entering kindergarten this fall.

A new school year is just weeks away and once again our children will be mingling together to learn, grow new friendships, and make each other sick! That thought, plus the battle over immunization laws that was waged last spring in the Legislature and all the buzz about health care reform in general has me thinking about a serious health gap in Vermont’s public policy.

To take care of our health, we must get regular preventive screenings, go to annual appointments, have time to get well and respond to the first sign of illness before it turns into an emergency. Unfortunately, many of Vermont’s working families don’t have time to take care of their health in these ways.

When people go to work sick, they infect those around them. Co-workers and patrons alike contract illnesses when people are unable to stay home from work. Children who go to school sick spread disease to other children.

According to the Vermont Department of Labor’s 2011 Fringe Benefits Study, half of Vermont workers do not have access to paid sick time. While Vermont law protects workers who take up to 24 hours of unpaid leave per year for medical emergencies or to take care of family responsibilities, Vermont employers are not currently required to provide any paid time off benefits to their employees. For many employed people in Vermont who lack the economic flexibility to miss work unpaid, this results in overwhelming pressure to go to work sick or, even more troubling, to send their children to school sick rather than miss a day or two of work.

The implications of this scenario stretch far beyond individuals.

When people go to work sick, they infect those around them. Co-workers and patrons alike contract illnesses when people are unable to stay home from work. Children who go to school sick spread disease to other children. Because illness and disease are often contagious, Vermont’s lack of paid sick days is not a problem that we should leave for each individual employee to negotiate with their employer. Rather, the reported lack of paid sick days for half of Vermont’s workforce directly impacts all of us and our children. The lack of paid sick days in Vermont is a serious public health concern.

Public policy has a role to play. It is election season in Vermont. Let’s hope that the incoming class of elected officials will help solve this problem by supporting legislation that will ensure every working Vermonter has some paid sick time. It’s up to us to elect those who will.

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  • Stan Hopson

    So small business owners get to pay for these sick days on top of all the other taxes, shummy care, etc?

    Let’s just turn off the lights now and slide the key under the mat.

  • Kelly Stettner

    Stan’s right on target with his comment — my company allows employees to use a vacation day if they need a sick day and can’t afford the time off. There is also optional short-term disability and long-term disability insurance. We’ve got to stop hammering business-owners with this garbage.

  • Tom Haviland

    Right. Because really what I want when I go to a business establishment is to interact with sick people.

  • Pam Ladds

    Reading the comments section is becoming very depressing! While I understand that small businesses struggle, sick employees spread disease and contribute to their own length of illness by not taking a day off. Kelly Stetner “allows” employees to take a day out of vacation time when they are sick. How generous! Unfortunately vacation time is also a necessity if you want good employees, healthy and strong. It is really hard to believe that this is 2012, our attitudes towards the health of the work force are much more in keeping with the Victorians.

    Has it occurred to anyone that some of this discussion would not be happening if we had a system of universal health care. Employers would not have to obsess about the trauma of providing health care access (and most small businesses don’t) workers would not be tied to one job, the health of employees would improve and paying for a sick day would not seem like the end of the world. The majority of industrialized countries have managed to do this now without falling off the cliff.