When call-center operator Cindy Morun, 30, came down with the H1N1 virus, she called her supervisor and stayed home. After three days off, she returned to work, bringing a doctor's note.
"I was still written up and penalized," she said. Now, her company is laying off, and Morun worries that her case of the swine flu will end up costing her a job.
"I didn't have any interest in cheating the system. I didn't get paid," said Morun, who only recently had been hired when she got sick.
Yesterday, she was among about 30 people attending a morning forum on paid sick time at the Central Branch of the Philadelphia Free Library.
Hours later in Washington, Congress' Joint Economic Committee released a report saying that 40 percent of employees in the private sector have no paid sick leave.
"The ability to take time off should be a basic labor standard and a basic public-health standard," Vicki Shabo, director of work and family programs for the National Partnership for Women and Families, told the Philadelphia forum.
That is why she and others there said they were backing proposed federal, Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia legislation requiring paid sick time.
Not everyone agrees with them. The Society for Human Resource Management, a professional group, opposes it.
"SHRM believes employers, not the government, are best situated to know the benefit preferences of their employees," the group said in a position paper.
Though eligibility thresholds vary under the proposed measures, the federal bill would provide seven paid days; the state's bill, six, and the city's, nine. All prorate for part-time workers.
In general, larger companies tend to provide paid leave. But nationwide, only half of companies employing fewer than 50 workers do. Union workers are more likely than nonunion to have paid sick leave, according to U.S. Labor Department statistics.
Low-wage workers, those earning less than $10.63 an hour, are less likely to be covered. Of those, only 7.9 million, or 35 percent, receive paid sick leave, the committee report said.
By contrast, 83 percent of the highest-wage workers, those earning more than $28.47 an hour, can count on paid sick time.
Particularly hard-hit are day-care employees, personal attendants, and restaurant workers like the 24-year-old food server from Queen Village who spoke up at yesterday's forum.
"I've gone to work with the flu, with fever and the sweats," she said, declining to have her name published for fear of being fired. "It's really disturbing."
At her Queen Village workplace, "you have to find someone to cover your shift," she said, describing the restaurant as a constant circle of sickness. "One person gets sick, and then the next person gets sick. But if someone could take off . . . maybe the circle would be broken."
Nobody wants people to work sick, said James Sherk, an employment analyst with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy group.
But, he said, employers think of the total cost per employee - and it does not matter to them whether the cost is in salary or benefits.
Sick pay typically runs 1.1 percent of total compensation, according to the U.S. Labor Department, while wages are about 70 percent and health insurance 8.2 percent.
If more benefits, such as mandatory sick pay, become the law, Sherk said in a telephone interview, employers will cut wages instead of constructing a compensation package that works best for the business and the employees. "You are taking the choice out of the employees' and the employers' hands."
The way she sees it, said Lori Davis, owner of Porter Child Care Center and the Broad Street Academy in North Philadelphia, paid sick time is imperative for her staff of 60.
"I'd rather pay you to stay out, than have you come in and then I'll have 15 employees out sick," she said at the forum. "Then I'm out of compliance with the law" requiring child-staff ratios.
The forum was put together by the Coalition for Healthy Families and Workplaces, which includes Women's Way, PathWays Pa, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, and Philadelphia Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Average compensation as of December 2009 for public and private sector workers, except federal employees.
Total per hour $29.37
Sick time 0.32
Personal time 0.10
Additional pay 0.74
(Such as overtime)
(Such as health)
(Such as Social
SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Low-wage workers are less likely to have paid sick time.
Share of workers
Wage range who get paid sick time
Less than $10.63 per hour 35%
$10.64 to 16.83 66
$16.84 to 28.46 75
$28.47 or more 83
SOURCE: Congressional Joint Economic Committee, based on unpublished Dept. of Labor statistics