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Paid sick leave a wise investment

BusinessJob MarketFood IndustrySwine FluFluJohns Hopkins University

Having shown national leadership on marriage equality and fair treatment of immigrant children, Maryland has the opportunity to turn its attention to the plight of workers who have no access to paid sick days. The ability to earn paid sick days allows workers to avoid the choice of going to work sick or going without pay — and maybe even losing a job.

Employers, workers, and the public would all benefit from such a standard. The many employers that already provide paid sick leave would have a level playing field with their competitors, and all would more easily maintain a healthy workplace.

Currently, 40 percent of private sector employees nationwide cannot earn paid sick days, and lower-paid service workers in the restaurant and fast-food industries are particularly unlikely to have this safeguard. Food service workers, health care workers, child care workers and others who come into physical contact with the public or handle our food are among the least likely to have paid leave. There can be serious consequences when infected employees go to work, as happened with an estimated 8 million people during the peak of the H1N1 flu virus outbreak several years ago.

Polls show overwhelming public support for paid sick leave, even among those who identify themselves as political conservatives. And as more and more jurisdictions adopt a standard, familiarity and support will grow.

Any new labor standard will generate concerns about the business climate and job creation, but the evidence from jurisdictions that have legislated paid sick days has all been positive.

The first jurisdiction to set a paid sick days standard was San Francisco, where employers have been required to offer paid leave since 2007. Surveys show workers' lives improved, businesses succeeded, and two-thirds of employers support the city's sick-days ordinance. Fears that the law would impede job growth were never realized. In fact, during the last five years, employment in San Francisco grew twice as fast as in neighboring counties that had no sick leave policy. San Francisco's job growth was faster, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, even in the food service and hospitality sector, which is dominated by small businesses and seen as vulnerable to additional costs.

Connecticut became the first state to enact a sick-days standard earlier this year, and it is too early to speak definitively about its experience so far. But Economic Policy Institute economists Elise Gould and Doug Hall calculated the potential impact of Connecticut's law before it passed and concluded that the cost of allowing employees to earn five days of paid sick leave a year would be very small relative to sales. If Connecticut employees with no sick leave were given the ability to earn five days of paid leave and used it as much as employees who already had access to leave, the cost was predicted to be only 0.19 percent of sales. For employers already providing five or more days of leave, there would, of course, be no cost at all. There is no reason to think the impact on business in Maryland would be any different.

For this small cost, we can improve the quality of jobs held by low-wage workers, boost productivity, reduce turnover — and protect public health.

Opening access to paid sick days for more than 700,000 Maryland workers who do not have leave will mean stronger, healthier families. Working parents are often forced to choose between staying home with a sick child and going to work. When parents cannot take off work, children are sometimes sent to school ill, diminishing their learning experience and exposing other students, teachers and staff to infection. When employees go to work sick, they endanger their own health and the health of their colleagues while jeopardizing safety and the quality of their work. But not going to work can mean overdue bills or skipping meals.

Business lobbyists will argue that new rules will hamper job creation — despite the evidence from San Francisco. In fact, it is not over-regulation but rather rising inequality and wage stagnation, which dampen consumer demand, that are among the fundamental causes of our economy's woes. Businesses will add workers when demand picks up, a process that can be helped by increasing access to paid sick leave. Employee turnover will be reduced and there will be more money in the pockets of the poorest workers, the people most likely to spend in the local economy.

Maryland should seize the opportunity to take the lead in quality job creation and sensible public policy.

Barbara Morgan is an economist and faculty member of the Johns Hopkins University. Ross Eisenbrey is vice president of the Economic Policy Institute. His email is reisenbrey@epi.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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