Sick & Safe

The Coronavirus Highlights Why Paid Sick Leave Is Vital

In 2016 Washington passed a law requiring paid sick leave for most employees. Now it feels important to the public at large.

By Stefan Milne March 3, 2020

On Sunday, an article in The New York Times argued that, as coronavirus spreads, some common advice—don’t go to work if you feel sick—affects people differently: “Service industry workers—like those in restaurants, retail, child care and the gig economy—are much less likely to have paid sick days, the ability to work remotely or employer-provided health insurance.” Nationally, half of employees in the lowest 25 percent of earners don’t have paid sick leave.

In 2016, though, Washington State passed Initiative 1433, which, in part, required that employers offer paid sick days to most of their staff, still one of only 10 states in the country to do so. Now King County is the country’s epicenter for coronavirus. So it’s worth acknowledging the value, and limitations, of a law like this not only for individuals but the public (especially since, for similar changes, Seattle is now a socialist boogeyman for some). 

While it’s nice to believe that those who work with the public—who work with your food—will stay home paid or not, the reality is messier. I’ve had many service-industry jobs, from retail to restaurants, and have worked sick in most—woozy on cold medicine or once, after the early and ugliest parts of bronchitis, tucking away to a kitchen corner to cough. For me, the financial pressure was never dire, and sometimes, I actually had paid sick leave but often decided to “tough it out,” a part of service industry culture. No manager pressured me to work; I also wasn’t sent home. In the grand societal scheme it was selfish, but in the smaller scheme an attempt to help those around me. Being understaffed in a kitchen is not a matter of delays—in smaller places, you’re always a person or two away from the whole structure imploding. Or so it feels. The threat of an actual pandemic ought to test to what to degree this is a reality. 

A single piece of legislation, of course, can’t fix a cultural problem like this. But it can help. At face value, I-1433 alleviates some financial stress in jobs that frequently hover near minimum wage—but only some financial stress, because the law demands that workers accrue an hour of leave for every 40 worked, and they can’t use it until 90 days into employment. Those in the gig economy remain excluded. Still, for the many it serves, such laws can recast perceptions of taking sick leave, from privilege to right. 

The repercussions of that carry further than some sick people who can afford to stay home. We all benefit from the people who cook and serve our food, who care for kids, being able to quarantine themselves—whether for the coronavirus or the flu. That benefit is founded on a bigger truth: A more equitable society is also more stable, healthier. 

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