Congress May Grant You More Sick Days

Feb. 22, 2007 — -- Elnora Collins says it's expensive raising two teenagers on the money she makes as a home health care aide. Most weeks, with a little juggling, and a lot of prayer, she gets by.

"I steal from Peter and give to Paul. Don't let the right hand know what the left is doing. That's the way I do it, and I make ends meet," Collins told Betsy Stark.

But one thing Collins cannot afford to do -- ever -- is get sick. She works through her fevers and flus. She works when she has no voice and when she barely has the strength to drive to the next job.

"If you decide to go home, [it's] loss of pay. So you're laying there sick and still trying to figure out how you're gonna pay this because you know when you get this check, it's going to be short. And when you get that check, it hurts," she said.

Collins is one of 59 million American workers who have no paid sick days at all. She's also among the 86 million who do not get a single paid day off to care for a sick child.

Of the 20 most competitive economies in the world, according to research by the World Economic Forum, the U.S. is the only one not to require businesses to provide paid sick days.

The federal government requires most employers to provide 12 weeks a year of unpaid leave for serious medical conditions. Advocates for paid sick leave say that until the law requires companies to provide a few paid sick days, millions of Americans will have no choice but to do what Collins does: work, when they should stay home.

"Many of these people are in the very industries you least want to have coming to work sick. They're folks who are food service workers, handling our food, child care workers, taking care of our kids, folks who work in nursing homes, in hospitality and retails," says Debra Ness of the National Partnership for Women and Families.

Business groups say another federal mandate is the last thing employers can afford. And if paid sick leave becomes the law of the land, somebody will pay.

"Now, whether that's the employee, forgoing other benefits they currently have, [or] whether that's the consumer because the cost has to be passed on, businesses are not just going to absorb it," said Barbara Lang, president of the Washington, D.C., chamber of commerce.

But there is growing momentum to make paid sick leave a basic worker protection.

Recently, San Francisco became the first city in the country to require businesses to offer paid sick days, and similar bills are pending in Madison, Wis., and in the states of Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont. Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate held hearings on a federal mandate for paid sick days, and next month the House is expected to hold hearings of its own.

Until then, the burden will remain where it is now -- on workers like Collins who are already carrying heavy loads.

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