Cordes: Paid sick leave policies are good for all

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Mari Cordes, a registered nurse and the president of the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that around 40 percent of people in the United States are forced to work when they or a family member are ill. If they must stay home, they risk losing pay or their jobs because they have no provision for any amount of sick time. (Bottari/Fischer, 2013) Recent studies show that 25 percent of workers will lose or have to leave their jobs directly because of lack of paid sick days. (Hill et al, UChicago) Sixty thousand people living in Vermont have no paid time off whatsoever.

Unless someone has personally experienced hardship due to not having paid sick time, this may not be an issue that many of us have thought much about. But a single mother working without any sick time knows that one day’s wage loss could mean her inability to pay rent. A man taking care of his elderly parent must choose between leaving his ill parent alone while he works, or risk losing pay — or even his job.

Fear of losing a job or the certainty of losing critical income are powerful deterrents to caring for oneself and one’s family members and can lead to contributing – unwillingly – to serious public outbreaks of influenza and other communicable disease. Worse, failure to access timely medical care delays detection of and early care for longer term diseases like diabetes and cancer.

Study findings show that paid sick leave reduces influenza transmission and hence the burden of illness in workplaces. A 2008 study done by the University of Vermont Medical School found that elementary school students in Vermont whose parents only have access to three or fewer paid sick days were five times more likely to be sent to school with an infectious illness.

Many Vermont businesses support paid sick days, and already have these protections in place for their employees.


Women are disproportionately impacted by the absence of a paid sick time standard, which makes this is an issue for women and families. It is also a serious public health issue. And, it is an economic issue. As health care providers, we see patients every day whose medical conditions are much worse than if they had been able to seek help early on. Not only is this personally costly to them, but all of us share the cost of uncompensated care, which the lack of paid sick time significantly increases. As we have been working toward universal health system for all, we know that we need fewer barriers to accessing health care, not more.

There is compelling evidence to show that mandates such as paid sick leave raised the standard of living for many thousands of people in San Francisco without deleterious effects upon businesses. Interestingly, the size of the population in San Francisco that was positively impacted is close to 60,000 – the number of people in Vermont with no paid time off.

Many Vermont businesses support paid sick days, and already have these protections in place for their employees. Seventy-five percent of businesses in the private sector already have paid time policies in place.

To accept that we don’t have a right to stay home from work when we are ill is unthinkable. To outwardly resist fixing this problem is unconscionable. And to put thousands of others at risk of contracting communicable diseases because our neighbors aren’t able to keep their germs at home with them until they heal is just a terrible practice.

We are living in a remarkable period of time when policy, resources and protections have shifted dramatically toward large businesses and away from people, with a continuing and disturbing trend of deteriorating standards for the lowest paid workers while the wealth and opportunities of very few are flourishing. All this while evidence grows that paid sick leave policies work and support both people and business.

Why do policy makers continue to prefer the influence of large businesses, chambers of commerce, and organizations such as ALEC-led National Federation of Independent Business and National Restaurant Association and make short-sighted choices about public health that growing evidence proves is unwise and just plain wrong?

If Vermont is going to lead the way with a sensible single payer, universal health system, it must also ensure that the 60,000 people who currently can’t leave work when ill can access health care through this system. If Vermont is going to continue its long history of landing on the right side of many human rights issues, it must lead in ensuring the right for everyone in our state to maintain their dignity and their right to care for themselves and their families without losing pay or jobs by passing paid sick day legislation.

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  • Dave Bellini

    Thanks for keeping this issue alive. The state of Vermont will not provide sick days to many correctional officers that work in our state prisons. It’s a difficult enough job to do under any circumstances. But, many of Vermont’s correctional officers have to choose between losing a days pay or going to work sick. I’m sure the Governor and the Agency of Administration have no idea this takes place and have never heard of this issue before.

  • Ron Pulcer

    Fortunately, my employer gives us a set number of paid sick days each year. Better yet, if you don’t use these sick days, they carry forward and accrue into the subsequent year(s). We also have the opportunity to get a flu shot onsite at work.

    As a customer of various businesses and restaurants, I would like to avoid coming in contact with a sick employee who should be at home getting rest and recuperating, or a parent that should be tending to a sick child. For the price of a service, product or a meal, I don’t want to also be purchasing the “flu” for myself!

    In the meantime, while we wait for legislators to address this issue …

    Perhaps those businesses and restaurants that are in fact already being responsible by allowing for some number of paid sick days allotment to employees, should ADVERTISE this fact. Responsible restaurants could make a note of this in small print at the bottom or back of their menus.

    That way customers who are concerned about their health or children’s health would be able to direct their dollars to towards responsible businesses and business owners. Customers could more easily stay clear of businesses who might have a sick employee handing you back change from your purchase and handling the items (or food) you purchased. You might be bringing home more than you bargained for.

  • Steven Farnham

    “Why do policy makers continue to prefer the influence of large businesses, chambers of commerce, and organizations such as ALEC-led National Federation of Independent Business and National Restaurant Association and make short-sighted choices…”?

    For the same reason that one robs a bank – ’cause that’s where the money is. 🙂

    What part of that don’t you understand?

    Thank you, Mari for a well written article. Keep up the battle. Hopefully we’ll live long enough to see it won.

    • Mari Cordes

      Thanks, Steven, for making me smile by answering my rhetorical question with a rhetorical question. And – thanks for the solidarity message.