Saturday, May 19, 2007

Sick Days For The Working Poor

A while back, Bob Herbert proposed what seems to be a most equitable idea, guaranteeing "sick days" for all workers:
It sounds reasonable: seven paid sick days a year. Why should you have to lose a couple of days pay, or maybe even your job, because you had the misfortune to catch the flu?

* * *

The reality, for a surprising percentage of the U.S. population, is more like the 19th century. Nearly half of all full-time private sector workers in the U.S. get no paid sick days.
He is unimpressed with the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store's response to this idea:
A spokeswoman said in an e-mail message: “Because employees working in the restaurants have flexible schedules, they can schedule doctors’ appointments and other appointments that sick leave and personal time are generally used for at times when they are not working.

“If employees need to miss a shift due to illness, there are generally many opportunities to make up that lost shift later in the week, or the next week.”
As somebody who once managed a food service establishment, I think the issue is a bit more complicated than Mr. Herbert recognizes.

Within the context of food service and similar jobs, there is a great deal of flexibility in the scheduling of shifts, and it is possible for employees to see doctors on the days they aren't working. It's not an office setting where the doctor has few, if any, office hours outside of your standard work day. It is not unreasonable for employers to expect their employees, when possible, to schedule medical care at times which will not cause them to miss work. But that's more of a quibble than a criticism.

My experience tells me that if you give low-wage workers sick days, you will create a context which may be worse than the status quo. I can recall covering many shifts for workers who called in "sick" at the last minute, most often between Friday afternoon and Monday morning. Most, of course, weren't actually sick. The best way to minimize this effect was to allow employees to trade shifts, which gave them the best of both worlds - the time off that they wanted, with no loss of income. If they had received "sick days" which would have paid for their missed shifts, the incentive to trade shifts would largely disappear. Also, I know that some of my employees would have worked while sick, either because they would be trying to "save" their sick time or because they had exhausted their sick days early in the year. For that matter, some have a strong sense of duty. Does it surprise anyone that even in low wage jobs, there are workers who will drag themselves into the workplace to avoid leaving their colleagues short-handed? (A good employer, of course, identifies the situation and sends them back home.)

To avoid paying double - the wages of the employee called in to cover the shift plus the "sick pay" to the employee who missed work - pressure would have come on me from above to end my liberal policy of taking the employee at his or her word, and employees would likely have been required to medically document their illness. Workers who get no sick days are not particularly likely to have good (or, for that matter, any) health insurance - so they get sick days, but in many cases it would cost them more to take (and medically document) sick leave than they would receive in sick pay.

I doubt that a legislative initiative which forbade employers from requiring medical verification would pass. If it did, it would effectively transform the sick days into "personal days" or "vacation days". That wouldn't be so bad, actually, and would perhaps be more consistent with how many workers would actually use their sick time.

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