Time for Earned Sick Days in Vermont

In Vermont, we both celebrate the protections that the Family and Medical Leave Act provides and recognize that the law doesn’t go far enough.  FMLA doesn’t cover routine illnesses, doesn’t cover all employees, and doesn’t consider the inability of many people to go without pay, even for a day or two. That’s why Vermont is working hard to be the second state to pass universal earned sick day legislation — the next step toward creating workplace standards that work for families.

Unfortunately, women are more likely than men to have jobs without earned sick days or paid time off of any kind.  It is time for the workplace to reflect the fact that the majority of households now have all adults in the workforce. We need to recognize that everyone gets sick and needs to go to the doctor occasionally. And we need to stabilize the minimum wage by ensuring people aren’t earning sub-minimum wage because they’re docked for taking a day here and there to care for their own health and that of their families.  Women can’t advance equally with men without an earned sick time standard.

At a hearing last week in the Vermont legislature, a local guidance counselor described a high school student she works with.  This student tried to commit suicide and was hospitalized.  On his first day back in school, his support team met with him to discuss what supports he needed to be safe and to reintegrate back to school.  Unfortunately, the only person missing from that meeting was his mother.  She had no paid time at work and could neither afford to miss the day or risk losing her job.  Sadly, this story is not unique.

Two days later we held a public hearing on the topic. There a nurse recounted several instances of caring for terminally ill patients whose family members couldn’t visit because they had no paid time off.  One recent patient had three close family members.  One drove for three hours for a visit before making the reverse trip to get to work.  The other two couldn’t take time. The man died alone, having had only a few hours with that one family member the whole time he was in the hospital.

We also heard from a volunteer at Women Helping Battered Women who begged the legislature to tell her what she should say to the women who ask her for help.  Nothing protects them from losing their jobs if they take time to seek legal protection from their abuser.  “If I miss work, I’ll lose my job,” they tell her.

This legislation is important not just for the individuals and families who are struggling to get by financially.  It’s also vital from a public health perspective.

When an hourly worker can’t afford to miss a day of work, they are under enormous pressure to go in sick or to send their children to school or day care sick. They are unable to access preventive health care.  That means greater spread of contagious illnesses and greater risk for vulnerable populations – not to mention increased costs in the healthcare system.

According to the US Bureau of Labor statistics, 71% of employees in food preparation and serving-related occupations in New England do not have access to paid sick time. Roughly half of noro-virus outbreaks are related to food handlers being sick.

Can restaurants afford to provide earned sick days and still stay competitive? According to Wes Hamilton, owner of Three Penny Tap Room in Montpelier, the best solution is implementing this piece of legislation. That would enforce a culture change, level the playing field, and make it possible for him to be able to afford the time and stay competitive.

Many employers are already doing the right thing.  Unfortunately, not all are. Earned sick time legislation will change that and bring the next step in ensuring all of us can be good breadwinners and good caregivers.

-Lindsay DesLauriers

Lindsay DesLauriers is the Public Policy Associate and Paid Sick Days Campaign Manager for Voices for Vermont’s Children.

More information on the campaign for Earned Sick Days in Vermont can be found here.  You may also follow our Coalition on Facebook and Twitter @VTPaidTime for more updates.

This post is part of the Family Values at Work blog carnival on the FMLA anniversary on February 5th, 2014.  Read more posts from other activists around the country at the Family Values @ Work carnival blog page.