There is a growing consensus among economists that U.S. economic growth is impaired by the steep rise in inequality that is squeezing a middle class built in Pittsburgh and elsewhere across the nation by a once vibrant union movement committed to norms of equity. The latest evidence shows it is variation between companies in how employers treat similar workers, and not a widening gap within companies between workers with greater and lesser levels of education, that is behind this growing inequality. As labor standards have eroded, workers in jobs where they are treated fairly worry that their next job may be in one of the growing number of companies that misclassifies employees as “executives” in order to be able to require them to work more than 40 hours in a week without having to pay them for the extra hours, or that they will be denied paid sick days because the company doesn’t feel compelled, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette put it in its July 15 editorial, to “pay employees for not working.” The recent decline in retail sales despite low oil prices is just the latest symptom of the impact on the economy of growing economic insecurity.
Contrary to the claims of some business lobbyists, research finds that legislation requiring businesses to provide paid sick days is not a costly burden for employers. In surveys in San Francisco, Seattle, and Connecticut of business’ experiences with paid sick days legislation, a large majority of employers report no or a modest effect on payroll costs. This is not surprising since employers cover most absences of a day or two by letting workers switch shifts, asking co-workers to pick up the slack, or putting the work on hold until the employee returns. Moreover, workers treat paid sick days as insurance, saving them for when they are really needed. Employers reported that nearly a third of workers used no paid sick days, and those that needed a sick day, on average, used fewer days than were available to them.
Inequality is more than just a matter of how much money workers take home. More than one-third of all private-sector workers—about 43 million employees—work for companies that do not provide even one paid sick day. For these millions of workers, a flu outbreak imperils not only much-needed paychecks but may cost them their jobs. Indeed, a surprising number of employers that provide paid sick days penalize workers who use them, subjecting employees to disciplinary action or even termination for making use of the company-provided benefit. Paid sick days legislation protects workers from retaliation by employers for staying home when they are sick. It levels the playing field for companies that treat workers fairly and know that everyone may occasionally get sick or need to stay home to care for a sick family member. It means that workers will no longer face wrenching choices when sickness strikes. Most of all, guaranteeing that workers have paid sick days they can use says something about us as a nation: that we are a society that understands how important it is in today’s world, a world no longer of bread-winner dads and stay-at-home moms, for all workers to have access to paid sick days.
Polls find that large majorities of Americans across the political spectrum now favor requiring companies to allow workers to earn sick leave. Pittsburgh should join the growing number of municipalities that has made paid sick days a labor standard.