In the monthly "Ethical Inquiry" series, we examine ethical questions, highlighting a broad array of opinion from journalism, academia, and advocacy organizations. Our intent is to illuminate and explore the complexity of some of the most vexing ethical questions of our time.

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Ethical Inquiry: August 2011

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Should Every Worker Have Paid Sick Leave? The Ethics of Employee Benefits and Rights


"The more restrictive the government is in how businesses can develop their benefits programs, the less flexible business owners can be. If it's paid sick leave, you're paying somebody who's not going to be there and you have to pay somebody to replace them. That has the potential to affect the bottom line for a lot of small businesses." – Molly Brogan, spokeswoman for the National Small Business Association

“When my son was sick, I had to call in sick because he couldn’t go to daycare. I had to take 2 days off and I regretted it because I have bills to pay and now I am behind…I have gone into work sick, sneezing and coughing because I can’t afford it. [My coworkers and I] are minimum-wage workers who can’t afford to miss work.” – Amber, food service worker without paid sick leave, Seattle

Paid sick leave is on the cutting edge of modern labor rights battles.

In June 2011, Connecticut became the first state to pass legislation requiring businesses (with fifty or more employees) to provide paid sick leave to their workers. The bill was highly contentious, and the legislation that narrowly passed was a milder version of previous proposals. The law will mandate that moderately-sized and large businesses provide their workers with one hour of paid sick leave for every 40 hours worked, up to a maximum of five paid sick days annually. These days can be used to recover from illness or injury, care for a sick relative, or attend doctor visits.

Similar bills have passed in a small number of municipalities and progressed in other states, including Massachusetts. Paid sick leave has even been considered at the federal level, most recently with the Healthy Families Act of 2009 [PDF]. Nationally, 45 percent of private sector workers, the vast majority of whom are low-wage workers, do not have paid sick leave. ( See U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Selected Paid Leave Benefits.)

In this installment of "Ethical Inquiry" we explore the ethical and logical implications of mandatory paid sick leave. In spring 2011, this was one of the issues students in the Brandeis University course "Advocacy for Policy Change" studied and worked on at the state level. This inquiry builds on research originally conducted for that course.

Historically, how have we defined “workers’ rights”?

The question of whether or not to institute paid sick leave mandates is essentially a question of workers’ rights versus workers’ benefits. How do we balance the two? Typically, benefits are provided to attract and maintain workers, while labor rights are considered inalienable and serve to level the playing field among employers. In considering the debates surrounding paid sick leave, it is worthwhile to look back on labor rights battles throughout history.

The 40-hour work week and job-protected (but unpaid) maternity leave are two provisions the United States now recognizes as basic worker rights. After decades of labor battles, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 instituted the forty-hour work week standard, among other regulations. Before the passage of this law, many employees were forced to work anywhere from 14 to 16 hours a day, six days a week. Unions, and even some employers, advocated for legislative reform in the name of fairness, public health, and better business.

The Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 provides all employees with 12 weeks of unpaid job-protected leave to care for a new child or a seriously ill family member. The most prominent argument in favor of this legislation concerned fairness. President Clinton stated at the signing of this bill, “family and medical leave is a matter of pure common sense and a matter of common decency.” Throughout history, a benefit has become a right when members of society feel that business interests supersede fundamental human interests – most notably health and commitments to family members.

Arguments in favor of paid sick leave

Paid sick leave as a basic right

Paid sick leave has been cited as a “basic labor standard for the 21st century,” and legislative advocates often compare this issue to the historic battles for the 40-hour workweek and minimum wage (Paid Sick Days: A Basic Labor Standard of the 21st Century [PDF]). As Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro stated, “Being a working parent should not mean a choice between taking care of your job, taking care of yourself, or taking care of your family. This is about the basic rights of families.” This rhetoric responds to polls revealing that working parents, especially mothers, often need to choose between their health (or the health of a family member) and preserving their job or paying the bills (Paid Sick Days: Experiences and Attitudes [PDF]). According to advocates, this choice is unfair and highly harmful to workers and their families.

Public health and worker safety

Workers without paid sick leave are exceedingly likely to attend work while ill (or send a sick child to school), a phenomenon known as "presenteeism." As a result, these employees risk injuring themselves on the job, infecting their coworkers and clientele, and contributing to public health scares. During the H1N1 outbreak, many businesses struggled with presenteeism and were forced to pass emergency paid sick leave policies in order to incentivize sick workers to stay home. Additionally, research links stomach flu outbreaks to food service workers, eighty percent of whom lack a guaranteed paid sick day, according to the National Institute for Women’s Policy Research. As an example,in Kent, Ohio, a 2008 stomach flu outbreak [PDF] was traced to an employee at a Chipotle restaurant. It affected more than 500 people and cost the Kent community between $130,000 and $300,000 in lost wages and health care costs, among other impacts.

Better for business

This is perhaps the most controversial argument in favor of paid sick leave, but growing research supports its validity. Advocates of this position argue that such legislation benefits businesses in the long-term by reducing worker turnover, both voluntary and involuntary, and by increasing productivity. Additionally, advocates cite studies showing that most workers with paid sick leave do not utilize the benefit unless absolutely necessary. (See Institute for Women's Policy Research: "San Francisco Paid Sick Leave Ordinance: Outcomes for Employers and Employees" [PDF].)

Levels the playing field

While most workers already have paid sick leave, a large minority of Americans (45 percent) do not. Most of these are low-wage laborers, who suffer most from the loss of a day’s wages. Paid sick leave, proponents say, is a basic standard that will level the playing field. Additionally, according to public opinion polls, an overwhelming majority of Americans believe employers should be required by law to provide paid sick leave. (See Public Welfare Foundation: Paid Sick Days: Attitudes and Experiences [PDF].)

Arguments Against Paid Sick Leave

High costs, particularly for small business owners

Opponents of paid sick leave legislation have come up with their own cost estimates, which reveal a much more perilous reality for businesses. (See Impact of Paid Sick Leave on NYC Business: A Survey of New York City Employers, conducted by the Partnership for New York City, data analysis by Ernst and Young [PDF].) These critics maintain that paid sick leave mandates put unfair pressure on business owners, particularly in today’s economy. The Senior Vice President of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce argues “Specific to small businesses, they are struggling to keep the lights on and their doors open in the most challenging economic period since the Great Depression. Now is not the time to mandate the costly and time consuming regulations as currently envisioned.”

Job reduction and benefit cuts

Opponents argue that paid sick day mandates interfere with the compromises established between the employees and employers within individual businesses. In order to sustain their businesses, they argue, employers will need to lay-off workers or cut other benefits formerly promised to employees. Sick leave policies should be decided by individual business owners, who are familiar with the specific needs and desires of their employees. (See "Sick leave mandate would hit businesses hard", The Portland Press Herald.)

Eliminates healthy competition

Some argue that morally speaking, paid sick leave is not a right; rather, it should be a benefit that employers offer to attract and maintain workers. If sick leave is important to employees, this argument maintains, they have the right to find an employer that provides for this need. Critics worry that if paid sick leave becomes considered an inalienable right, employees will take advantage and use the provision unnecessarily; this is often referred to as "moral hazard."

Final Thoughts

When considering the ethical and logistical implications of paid sick leave legislation, there are many questions to resolve: What supports entrepreneurial interests and worker interests? What should be defined as worker "rights" and what should be defined as worker "benefits"? When is such legislation best enacted, if at all? Should the legislation be sensitive to business size, to attenuate the conflicting interests that helped make the paid sick day debate so explosive?

We invite you to continue exploring the ethical issues that arise in this context, and to share your thoughts with us on our Facebook page.

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This installment of "Ethical Inquiry" was researched and written by Madeleine Gecht ’11, a member of the Spring 2011 "Advocacy for Policy Change" (LGLS 161b) class, and builds upon research conducted by her with her partner in the class, Rebecca Ludwig '11. The course is the centerpiece of a new initiative launched by the Ethics Center designed to encourage citizens to bring moral and ethical insights to the process of making and revising laws. The Advocacy for Policy Change initiative is supported by generous multi-year commitments from Center International Advisory Board member Norbert Weissberg and his wife, former Board member Judith Schneider.