Paid Sick Days: A Public Health Issue

Imagine ordering a meal at a fast food restaurant, and seeing the person preparing it sniffling, coughing and sneezing. It probably happens more often than you realize.

Most fast food restaurant workers in New York City do not have paid sick days. There is currently no law requiring employers to provide paid sick days. There also exists a very real fear of losing their jobs if they were to take time off due to illness.

Fast food restaurant workers in New York City make as little as $7.25 an hour. If they worked 40 hours a week, all 52 weeks of the year, they would have a gross salary of a little over $15,000. They simply cannot afford to take unpaid time away from work when they get sick.

Current fast food worker conditions of low wages and no paid sick leave days are detrimental to preventing the spread of infectious disease. Fast food restaurant workers without the “luxury” to stay home when they are ill put many at risk for contracting infectious disease. They may travel on public transportation, exposing a countless number of people. They interact with customers and other workers in the restaurant, and/or directly handle and prepare food.

New York City Councilwoman Gale Brewer proposed a bill requiring employers to provide 5 paid sick days for companies with 5-19 employees and 9 paid sick days for larger companies. While this may be sufficient for single employees without families, for employees with dependents, this may not be enough.  For example, if employees do not have enough paid sick days to stay home with sick children, they are forced to send their children to school and risk exposing other children to illness.

Councilman Dan Garodnick proposed a less aggressive solution, calling for 5 paid sick days for any company with more than 5 employees, and affords restaurant workers the right to swap shifts or take sick days. Garodnick’s proposal may somewhat alleviate the fear of losing one’s job by taking sick leave, but still would not offer enough paid sick leave, especially for employees with families.

Offering a comprehensive and more effective solution to improve work conditions for fast food restaurant workers would simultaneously fight the spread of infectious disease. We need to do two things: 1) change minimum wage to a living wage and 2) offer adequate paid sick leave.

Living wage refers to the hourly wage a worker must earn to support himself or herself. In New York City, minimum wage ($7.25) is $5.50/hour below the living wage ($12.75). In June 2012, the City Council overrode Mayor Bloomberg’s veto of the Fair Workers for All New Yorkers Act. This Act requires that all employers who receive more than $1 million in taxpayer subsidies pay a living wage of $10/hour with health benefits and $11.50/hour without health benefits. This Act does not include all minimum wage employers and still falls short of the NYC living wage of $12.75.

The opportunity for paid sick leave will decrease infectious disease exposure and promote recovery, leading to a more productive workforce, not only within fast food establishments, but for the city as a whole. Parents can stay home with sick children, and with increased wages, would have an increased capacity to pay for sick child care.

The United States is currently experiencing widespread flu activity, and federal health officials report an unusually early flu season that continues to intensify.  Therefore, it is especially timely and urgent to fight for living wage and paid sick leave.

What is minimum wage where you live, and how does that compare to the living wage? (Click here for the Living Wage Calculator.) What are your local paid sick day policies? Who are the politicians advocating for better worker conditions? Tweet me at @JMCelio !



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