Commentary: No paid sick leave in Delaware leaves workers in a pinch

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America is woefully behind when it comes to guaranteeing workers the benefits they deserve. As one example, America is the only advanced nation that fails to guarantee its workers paid sick time. In fact, 184 nations around the world guarantee workers paid sick time — but not America. According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), only 64% of private-sector American workers have paid sick time.

Higher-paid workers are much more likely to have paid sick time than low-income workers. Per the EPI, here are the percentages of private-sector workers per income bracket who have paid sick time: for the top 25% of income, 84%; for the next quarter of income, 75%; for the next quarter of income, 65%; and for the bottom quarter of income, 25%. Amongst the top 10% of earners, 87% have paid sick time, while the same is true for just 27% of the bottom 10% of earners.

Women and minorities are much more likely to work at jobs that do not offer paid sick time. This fact is especially problematic given how often women are households’ primary breadwinners and bear the primary responsibility for raising children. Per the Delaware Office of Women’s Advancement and Advocacy, 82% of Black mothers, 58% of White mothers and 56% of Hispanic mothers are key family breadwinners. Delaware women represent 63% of the state’s lowest-paid workers, and nearly one-third of Delaware mothers live in poverty. Other workers more likely to lack paid sick time include people of color, caregivers, military spouses and seniors working during retirement.

Workers’ lack of sick time presents a serious public health issue. During the pandemic, we have learned not just how important sick time is, but that many of our front line essential workers not only make the least money but often have little or no paid leave. Many of these employees come into contact with people, food and product frequently on a daily basis — like retail workers, grocery store employees and restaurant workers. For the good of public health, sick workers should stay home to prevent the spread of various diseases and other contagious health conditions, including pandemic viruses and the flu.

Many employees understandably report to work ill because they cannot afford to lose the income. Per a 2015 study by Norton, et al., almost half of all restaurant-related foodborne illness outbreaks are attributed to sick employees. Per a 2016 National Partnership for Women & Families study, 70% of women in the fast-food industry reported going to work in the last year despite displaying symptoms of illness, including coughing, sneezing, fever, diarrhea and vomiting.

For these reasons, I have introduced House Bill 409, which will require Delaware employers to offer employees sick time. The legislation is modeled after that of 14 other states and Washington, D.C. HB 409 considers the needs of businesses in various ways, including caps on accrued hours; allowing employees to require that a worker be employed for at least 90 days before using sick time; and allowing smaller businesses to offer unpaid job-protected hours instead of paid hours. Employees may use accrued time for illness or medical appointments and also for “safety leave” to cope with or escape domestic violence situations.

Guaranteed sick time is good not just for employees but also for businesses. States that have passed similar legislation have shown high support from employers and no negative economic effects as a result. Employers granting employees sick time report higher job satisfaction, loyalty, productivity and morale. Smaller businesses offering sick time better allows those businesses to attract and retain quality employees and to compete against larger employers for workers. Sick time allows sick employees to stay home when they are sick, preventing the spread of illness and lost productivity in workplaces.

It is time for Delaware to join the 184 other nations, 14 American states and D.C, that guarantee their workers sick time.

Eric Morrison, a Democrat, is the state representative for the 27th District in the Newark/Bear/Glasgow area.