Proposals for paid sick leave stir up a healthy debate

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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.

‘Disease spreads’

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. 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.”

No work, no pay

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.”

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.