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Proposals for paid sick leave stir up a healthy debate

From the age of 16, Jorge Silva has worked in fast food – a Jack in the Box, a Carl's Jr., two IHOPs and a Disney outlet. None of the jobs ever offered paid sick leave.

From the age of 16, Jorge Silva has worked in fast food – a Jack in the Box, a Carl's Jr., two IHOPs and a Disney outlet. None of the jobs ever offered paid sick leave.

Over seven years, Silva said he saw fellow employees suffering from viruses and vomiting in restrooms when they couldn't afford to take time off. And he went to work with colds and flu himself.

"I knew it wasn't a good idea to be handling other people's food," said the Fullerton, Calif., college student, now 24. "But I just worked through it. I had bills to pay."

Across the economy, low-wage workers, whether in restaurants, hotels, theme parks, retail stores, child care centers or nursing homes, are often faced with a stark choice: take a pay cut or go to work ill.

The lack of paid sick leave has become a flash point as cities and states grapple with stagnating wages and shrinking benefits for low- and middle-income workers. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, 39 percent of American workers get no paid leave when they fall ill. In the lowest-paid tenth of the workforce, 80 percent must forfeit income when they get sick.

In April, New York City became the latest municipality to make businesses pay sick workers. Ordinances are also in effect in San Francisco; Seattle; Newark, N.J.; Jersey City, N.J.; Washington; and Portland, Ore. Connecticut has a statewide mandate.

"People are struggling," said California state Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego. "But when they go to work sick, just so they can pay the rent, it is a public health hazard. Disease spreads."

Gonzalez is sponsoring a bill, AB 1522, to make California employers give both part-time and full-time workers an hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours on the job. The legislation, which has passed two Assembly committees, has a better-than-even chance of becoming law, given expected support from the Democratic majority and an improving economy. It allows employers to cap the paid leave at three days a year.

If the measure is enacted, more than 5 million Californians could benefit.

A 2012 ballot initiative in Long Beach, Calif., granted workers at major hotels five days of paid sick leave along with a wage boost. The Los Angeles City Council is considering a similar measure that would apply to 12,000 hotel workers.

Business is fighting back. Bills promoted by members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-funded group in Arlington, Va., have passed in 11 states to bar localities from enacting paid sick leave ordinances.

In California, the Chamber of Commerce dubs the paid sick leave bill a "job killer" and "a huge burden on employers." A score of other industry groups, from the powerful California Restaurant Association and California Retailers Association to the lesser-known Air Conditioning Trade Association and Fence Contractors Association, have registered opposition.

The mandate, they note, would come on the heels of a boost in the state minimum wage from $8 to $9 an hour in July of this year, and to $10 in 2016.

Dean Simon, CEO of Bruxie LLC, a waffle sandwich chain with six Orange County, Calif., locations and a planned expansion to Los Angeles, estimates the sick leave bill could cost his company more than $125,000 a year.

The company offered health insurance to its 40 full-time workers before the Affordable Care Act required it, along with paid time off, he said. It already pays $9 an hour to entry-level workers, more than many other fast food outlets.

But Simon opposes paid sick leave for his 240 part-timers.

"We are in the business of business," he said. "If you mandate paid sick leave, they might use the day to go to the beach."

Tim McCune, president of Costa Mesa, Calif.-based Salt Creek Restaurants, said a paid sick leave mandate would hurt small companies.

"Corporate giants have deep pockets," McCune said. "But restaurants like ours are a nickel-and-dime business with narrow profit margins."

Salt Creek offers three days of paid sick leave a year to a few full-time managers, but not to the bulk of his 225 employees, who are part-timers. He adjusts schedules if someone is sick "so it is no extra payroll expense."

Do employees go to work sick? "Restaurant workers make money on tips, so they don't like to take time off no matter what," he said. "If we see someone is ill, we send them home."

Although polls show that three-quarters of Americans favor paid sick leave, business opponents have succeeded in defeating previous bills in California's legislature.

Earlier versions provided for five to nine days of paid annual leave and were put forth as the economy was still reeling from the recession.

Gonzalez's bill may have a better chance.

"We have drastically reduced the cost of the bill by limiting the number of days," she said. "When the Chamber, which represents Wal-Mart and other big conglomerates, says it will kill jobs, it doesn't pass the smell test. If multibillion-dollar companies can't accommodate three days a year, their business model is off."

Gonzalez's bill would let workers use paid sick leave to care for ailing family members. Parents without paid leave often can't afford to take time off to take a child to the doctor during office hours, and studies show they are twice as likely to send a sick child to school and five times more likely to use the emergency room, Gonzalez said.

One study, by the Institute for Women's Policy Research, based in Washington, D.C., estimates that if all workers had paid sick days, 1.3 million emergency room visits could be prevented each year nationwide, saving $1.1 billion in health care costs annually.

Anthony Goytia, 32, works as a stocker at a Wal-Mart in Duarte, Calif., making about $16,000 a year. Working 32 hours a week, the father of four is classified as part time and thus is ineligible for paid sick leave. His wife works as a low-level manager at a Big Lots.

"People come to work sick all the time," Goytia said. "They can't afford not to. I've gone to work three or four times with a cold or the flu."

Once, after calling in sick when he had a cyst removed from his armpit, he said he was penalized as a "no show." Another time, he had to leave work to take his son to the emergency room, and "that was counted against me. If you are cited three times, you can get fired," he said.

Wal-Mart spokesman Randy Hargrove said full-time workers get up to six days of paid sick leave. Part-timers earn one personal day off a year and are allowed three unpaid absences, he said, after which time off is considered "on a case-by-case basis."

Wal-Mart has no position on California's sick leave bill, Hargrove said, adding, "We care about the health of our associates. Staying home and getting well is in everyone's best interest."

The Walt Disney Co. also relies on thousands of part-timers who, for the most part, get no paid sick leave. Full-time Disneyland employees get up to seven days yearly.

Suzi Brown, a Disneyland spokeswoman, said the company has not taken a position on the Gonzalez bill. Disney employs 26,000 in Orange County.

In Florida, however, the company did take an active stance on the issue. Last year, as Orlando prepared to launch a local ballot initiative on sick leave pay, Florida news reports identified a lobbyist for Disney's Florida theme parks as a key strategist behind a state legislative ban that killed the proposal. Another backer of the state bill, which outlawed municipal sick pay ordinances, was Orlando-based Darden Restaurants, which employs more than 200,000 at Olive Garden, Red Lobster and other outlets nationwide.

Nonetheless, paid sick leave has powerful allies, including labor unions such as UniteHere, the United Food and Commercial Workers and the Service Employees International Union.

In a letter to California legislators, the California Catholic Conference endorsed the Gonzalez bill, saying, "Just three unpaid days off can cost a family without access to paid sick days, on average, their entire monthly grocery budget."

The California Medical Association wrote legislators, "Paid sick leave is a public health strategy." It noted that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that half of all outbreaks of food-related illness are caused by norovirus, a gastrointestinal illness which is easily transmitted by contagious food workers.

In 2008, officials linked 509 cases of norovirus, causing diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, to a single worker at a Chipotle Mexican Grill in Kent, Ohio – a restaurant without paid sick leave.

Before it reaches the full California Assembly, the Gonzalez bill must pass the Appropriations Committee because it covers 368,000 home health care workers who are paid with federal, state and local funds. Those workers, who serve poor, elderly and disabled Medi-Cal recipients, are among the few public employees who don't get paid sick leave. Covering them could cost the state more than $6 million a year.

Luz Cedeno, 62, is among home health care workers who would benefit. She works 30 hours a week for $9.30 an hour. Her clients are a 68-year-old cancer survivor, a 57-year-old man with liver disease and her own 78-year-old mother, who has a debilitating shoulder injury.

"If I went to work sick, they'd catch (the bug) right away," said Cedeno, who does everything from cleaning toilets to organizing pill boxes for her charges. "I had the flu real bad for a week, and I didn't go, so I didn't get paid."

For the former paralegal, who was laid off during the recession, losing just a few days of work meant barely paying the rent on her one-bedroom Anaheim, Calif., apartment and falling far behind on her electric bill. "I'm living on the edge," she said.

In the end, whether paid sick leave helps or hurts business is a matter of dispute. The Employment Policies Institute, a restaurant industry group, surveyed 156 Connecticut companies and found that 31 had reduced other employee benefits to balance the cost of the state's paid sick leave law.

But the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington, D.C., think tank, and the City of New York's Murphy Institute surveyed 251 Connecticut businesses and found that only 6.5 percent said their costs had risen 5 percent or more as a result of the law.

Bruxie's Simon remains skeptical.

"It's a slippery slope when mandates come one after another," he said. "You can choose to make less money. You can raise prices. Or you can cut staff. None of those are good options."


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