Most people would be surprised that paid sick days are not a guarantee for America's workers. Millions of people in New Jersey and around the United States without this critical benefit face a terrible dilemma when they themselves or a family member is sick: miss a day of pay or leave a sick child or elderly parent without care.
A new study released this week by the National Partnership for Women & Families and New Jersey Citizen Action finds that not a single state is doing enough to guarantee paid sick leave to employees. Almost 59 million Americans, including almost half the private sector, do not even have one paid sick day. Under current New Jersey law, employees who are temporarily disabled for medical reasons, including pregnancy and childbirth, receive partial wage replacement in the form of temporary disability insurance benefits. In addition, New Jersey provides 15 days of sick leave and three days of personal leave to state employees.
The report gives New Jersey a grade of "B-minus" for paid sick days. As a result, New Jersey's temporary disability insurance system, as successful as it has been, must evolve to accommodate the changes of the work force and family lifestyles.
New Jersey is not alone in failing to give its workers adequate paid sick days. The National Partnership study finds that while California is far ahead of other states in giving workers family leave benefits, it receives only a grade of "B-plus." At the same time, just six states earned a "B" ranking, while more than half the states received grades of "D" or below.
Nor is the federal government setting a high enough standard, receiving a grade of just "C-minus." It provides its workers 13 paid sick days a year relatively generous compared to the private sector but no better than what many states offer their own employees. And the federal government lags behind several states in that it does not require private employers to provide any paid sick leave.
In addition, a related study by The Global Project at Harvard University finds the United States lags far behind the rest of the world in giving workers paid sick days. One hundred-thirty-nine nations provide paid sick leave for short- or long-term illnesses and 117 of those nations guarantee a week or more of paid sick leave per year.
As if sacrificing their own and their families' health and well-being isn't bad enough, there are costs when employees come to work when they are sick. Forty-four percent of human resources executives say that "presenteeism" employees coming to work when they are ill is a problem in their companies. A recent study from the Cornell University Institute for Health and Productivity Studies found that presenteeism costs employers an average of $255 per employee per year, and that on-the-job productivity losses from presenteeism may be as high as 61 percent of an employee's total medical and lost productivity costs. That exceeds the costs of absenteeism and medical and disability benefits.
The good news is that a solution is on the horizon. Earlier this year, Gov. McGreevey took an important first step through his Kids Time proposal. This lifeline for workers would give full-time employees 16 hours of job-protected paid leave to attend to their children's education or emergency medical needs each year. It would give part-time employees eight hours of the same. And it would have the added benefit of involving more parents in their children's education, which is one of the leading indicators of a child's success in school.
Just last week, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-Conn., introduced the Healthy Families Act in Congress. This new bill would guarantee seven paid sick days per year for full-time employees, and a pro-rata number for part-time employees. It would cover public- and private-sector employers with at least 15 employees.
Failure to provide paid sick days to workers causes profound harm to families. It also causes unnecessary costs to businesses, which spend money recruiting and training new workers to replace employees who would stay if only a few sick days were available. A workplace that does not provide paid sick days is a workplace that is failing its employees, its community and itself.
Passing the Healthy Families Act should be one of our highest priorities. In a nation that truly values families, no one should have to choose between a paycheck and caring for their loved ones.
Paid sick leave is good for families and good for businesses. It's time to care.
Copyright 2004 Asbury Park Press