Sick Leave as National Policy

According to a report published by the Public Welfare Foundation (PWF), more than 160 countries in the world (including Mexico, Canada, Australia, virtually all of Europe and Asia, all of Central and South America, and the majority of Africa) provide guaranteed paid sick leave to employees.  The United States does not.

In the U.S., as it happens, unless you’re a management employee, or are fortunate enough to work for a company that voluntarily offers sick leave, or you belong to a labor union that managed to negotiate the benefit in your contract, you’re out of luck.

The upshot is that sick employees in the U.S. tend to show up for work anyway, thereby spreading contagious diseases to fellow employees.  Moreover, U.S. parents are more apt to send sick children to school because there is no one to stay home with them—thereby having children spread contagious diseases to fellow students.

Unmentioned in the public health report is what Human Resources refers to as “shadow workers”—people who are under the weather but reluctantly drag themselves to work to avoid losing money, yet are too sick or lethargic to perform their jobs adequately.  They are there physically, but that’s about all.  As a consequence, productivity declines. So does work place safety.

The overwhelming majority of restaurant workers don’t have sick leave.  Given that the restaurant industry is notoriously non-union, and relies heavily on young, transient and immigrant labor, this is not surprising.  Restaurants also lead the pack in NLRB complaints and violations, so why would they be expected to offer anything as enlightened as sick pay?

But what is surprising—and somewhat alarming—is the report by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United) revealing that almost two-thirds of restaurant employees admit to having “cooked or served food” while sick, which makes it a genuine public health issue.

San Francisco is the first and only U.S. city to pass a law requiring all employees to be guaranteed paid sick leave.  The innovation has worked.  According to the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, since the law’s passage, in 2007, s the city’s economy has not suffered unduly, and both job growth and business growth have risen faster than in neighboring counties in the Bay Area—none of which made paid sick leave mandatory.

Skeptics of the San Francisco statistics need only consider the obvious:  Paid sick leave works virtually everywhere in the world.  It works in Libya, Bolivia, Egypt and Germany.  It works in India and Pakistan.  Why wouldn’t it work in northern California?

In addition to the 163 countries that guarantee employees paid sick leave, here are some social service/public health statistics (provided by the Institute for Health and Social Policy) that should make Americans blush:

177 nations guarantee paid leave for new mothers; the U.S. does not.

74 nations guarantee paid leave for new fathers; the U.S. does not.

132 nations guarantee breastfeeding breaks at work; the U.S. does not.

48 nations guarantee paid time off to care for children’s health issues; the U.S. does not.

41 nations provide leave that can be used for child education needs; the U.S. does not.

33 nations provide paid leave to care for adult family members; the U.S. does not.

Oddly, my tough old union, AWPPW Local 672, didn’t have paid sick leave.  The managers had it—indeed, management had a very generous sick leave package—but the hourly workforce did not.  While the hourly had lots of valuable stuff in the contract, lots of goodies the union was proud of, paid leave wasn’t included.

When I asked some of the International’s veteran negotiators—guys who’d been active in union affairs since the early 1950s—how it was that, with all the boiler-plate benefits and perks we had (vacation, pension, medical, overtime premiums, et al), paid sick leave wasn’t one of them, they offered two explanations.

First, for whatever reasons, the paper industry (going all the way back to the early 20th century) had never made sick leave a priority.  It just wasn’t important to them.  Second, it’s hard to get a company to give you something you never had because you’ve already “demonstrated” you can live without it.  And sick leave was something we’d clearly shown we could live without.

During my tenure, I sat on five negotiations, and we pushed for sick leave at every one of them.  We never came remotely close to getting it.  In the early days, the company knew it was a “wish list” item and simply ignored us; and in the predatory, post-Reagan years, we were too busy trying to hang on to what we had to focus on breaking new ground.

If we lived in India, it would have been a different story.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at