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Keep our working families healthy and safe [Commentary]

Consider this scenario: A single mom's baby wakes up with a fever. She can either give him a dose of Tylenol, hoping it brings the baby's temperature down long enough to make it through her shift as a waitress, or stay home and miss a whole day's pay and not be able to afford rent or day care next week. She chooses the Tylenol, feeling guilty about it.

Her son infects several other children at the day care, which sends him home. His mom has to miss work to care for him, then gets sick herself. Once her son is well enough to return to day care, she returns to work, because she feels she has to, infecting colleagues and customers.

Their sickness, the children in the day care and all the bills that can't be paid can all be tied to the single mom's lack of paid sick leave. We should never have to choose between our health and safety and our paycheck, but more than 700,000 Maryland workers face this awful choice day in and day out.

The compromises are particularly difficult for Maryland's working women, 54 percent of whom lack access to paid sick days, despite making up half the workforce, serving most often as primary family caregivers and being the most likely to need medical or legal services for sexual assault.

They are also particularly difficult for Maryland's low-wage workers, 80 percent of whom are unable to earn paid sick days. When they get care — if they're able to at all — it comes at greater cost because it occurs outside business hours. Parents without paid sick leave are five times more likely to take family members to the emergency room for their care, and the average emergency room visit costs over $1,200.

The lack of paid sick leave for these workers also means greater health risks for the rest of us. Workers without paid sick leave are more than twice as likely to send a sick child to school or day care. They are also 1.5 times more likely to come to work with a contagious illness, spreading that illness at the workplace and decreasing overall worker productivity. That number goes up for food service and hotel workers, over three fourths of whom don't have a single paid sick day. This increased health risk has real costs for businesses; workplace illness due to workers coming in sick costs employers an estimated $160 billion per year.

It shouldn't have to be this way. In 145 countries, earned sick and safe leave has been the standard for quite some time, and the benefits have been clear: healthier, safer and more productive workers, more sanitary workplaces, and better cared-for families. All this without harm to businesses' bottom line. Indeed, the Institute for Women's Policy Research estimates that employers save $9.07 per week for covered workers. Next door in Washington, D.C., earned sick and safe leave has been the law since 2008, and a 2013 audit showed that the law neither harmed existing businesses nor discouraged new businesses from opening. In fact, business in D.C. is booming, and jobs for working families are rapidly expanding.

Maryland workers deserve the opportunity to earn paid sick leave. They deserve the chance to be freed from impossible situations that pit their lives against their livelihood. That's why I strongly support an Earned Sick and Safe Leave Act for Maryland.

The Earned Sick and Safe Leave Act would allow all Maryland workers to earn one hour of paid sick and safe leave for every 30 hours worked, up to a maximum of 7 full days (56 hours) of paid sick leave per year for full-time workers. Workers would be allowed to take as much leave as they have earned, and remaining leave time would be carried over from year to year within limits that appropriately account for the operating needs of businesses. This paid leave would not impact worker protections under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), nor would it impact employers that already have leave policies that meet the act's requirements. In short, the act would dramatically improve the ability of Marylanders to responsibly balance work and family health. I was proud to co-sponsor this bill in the last legislative session and will continue to fight for its passage in the year ahead.

Jolene Ivey, who is Attorney General Douglas Gansler's running mate in the race for governor, is a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, chair of the Prince George's County House Delegation and House chair of the Joint Committee on Children, Youth and Families. Her email is jolene.ivey@house.state.md.us.


To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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