When Workers Can’t Afford to be Sick

By Jasmine Hardy, Howard University News Service

One Quarter of Americans Without Paid Sick Leave

The giant coffee retailer, Starbucks,  27,000 stores in 75 countries, recently announced that it will now offer paid sick leave to its more than 300,000 employees.   Courtesy Photo

WASHINGTON – It’s a quandary. You are too sick to go to work, but you can’t afford to stay home. If you do, you won’t get paid for that day, and you desperately need every dime you earn. Even worse, not going to work could get you fired.

That’s the dilemma for millions of America workers each day. More than one of every four employees in America is without paid sick leave. Consequently, they simply cannot afford to be sick.  

More than 35 million American workers do not have paid sick leave. Ironically, they are the lowest earning workers, those who can least afford a reduction in their paycheck, which means they are disproportionately black and Latino. Almost half of all service workers, America’s lowest paid wage sector, do not get paid sick leave, whereas 89 percent of management positions get the benefit.

Starbucks, the giant coffee retailer with 27,000 stores in 75 countries and more than 300,000 employees, shed light on the issue recently when it announced in January it would begin giving all its workers paid sick leave. Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson said the announcement was part of a long-term effort to boost employee compensation.

“I am extremely proud to share that in the past four years, Starbucks has made an investment of nearly $800 million in employee compensation and benefits, a testament to our belief in our people and the role they play in creating the Starbucks Experience,” Johnson said.

U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) praised Starbucks for its efforts.

McDonalds is one of three companies among the 10 largest employers in the
U.S. that does not offer paid sick lo its employees.  Workers have been 
protestinig for higher payand more benefits.  Courtesy photo

“I commend Starbucks for understanding the value of offering their employees the benefits needed to live healthy, productive lives,” Lee said. “It is unfair for workers to have to choose between their income or caring for a sick child or elderly parent, especially low-income families struggling every day to make ends meet.

Tabitha Edmond, a barista at a Starbucks in the Columbia Heights area of Washington, said she fully appreciates the benefits Starbucks has always offered its employees.

“Starbucks has always had great benefits,” Edmond, 22, said. "They’re just getting better.”

Before Starbucks, however, Edmond said she worked at Shoe City in the District of Columbia. Working for the company “felt like slavery,” she said. “They didn’t have paid sick leave and asked for way too much.”

Starbucks is the latest major company to announce it is extending paid sick leave to its employees. Chipotle started giving its hourly employees paid sick leave back in 2015, along with paid vacation. In addition, Maryland this month passed a law that requires companies to allow workers to earn paid sick time. Full-time employees would be able to take a full day off after working for six weeks.

The U.S. is the only developed country that does not require paid sick leave, according to National Public Radio. The decision on whether a company will allow employees paid sick leave is usually up to the discretion of the company, though 10 states require businesses pay employees up to seven days a year if they can’t report to work for illness.

California Sen. Kamala Harris, a Democrat, would like to see the federal government require paid sick leave on a federal level, her office said.

“Sen. Harris is encouraged by companies choosing to invest in their workers by providing paid sick leave and believes that we need to enact paid family and sick leave nationwide to ensure that all working families across the country have this protection,” her press secretary, Tyrone Gayle, said in an email.

Verona Winston is one of those workers without paid sick leave.

Winston just turned 66 years old and says her retirement is not enough to pay her bills, so she had to take a part-time job at McDonald's in Washington. She’s been there for the past three years.

Luckily, she said, she’s only been sick once and even then she only missed one day. Some days, however, Winston said, she is in so much pain it is difficult to walk. On those days, she said, she has no choice but to come into work.

“I have arthritis in my knee, but I still go to work because I can’t afford to stay home,” she said. “I have to do what I have to do and just deal with it while trying not to think about it.” 

Winston lives in Silver Spring, Md. Both of her daughters are adults. She is a widow. Her primary concern is taking care of herself and her health, she said. She said she was sick recently and needed a pneumonia shot.  She got the shot, but still went to work.

This chart shows the growing numbers of states and municipalities that demand companies offer employhees paid sick levve.  Courtesy photo.

“They see you sick, and they still don’t care,” she said.

According to USA Today, the top 10 largest employers in the U.S. include Walmart, Yum! Brands, McDonald's, IBM, United Parcel Service, Target, Kroger, Home Depot, Hewlett Packard and General Motors. Only three out of all 10 of these companies offer all their employees paid sick leave.

Georgetown University economist Mary Anne Bronson said one reason companies might hesitate to give employees paid sick leave is because they believe workers will abuse the right.

“If you give them all sick leave, employees might take sick leave when they’re not really sick,” Bronson said.

According to research by Cornell University economist Nicolas Ziebarth, it is in companies’ best interest to allow paid sick leave. For one, Ziebarth said, it reduces the spread of contagious diseases, like colds and the flu, which has a positive effect on the productivity of a company.

Bronson agrees.

“If you go to work sick and get all your coworkers sick, it decreases productivity,” she said. “In general, having at least some amount of sick leave has positive effects on labor supply and that’s good for everybody.”

Additionally, researchers from Cleveland State University and Florida Atlantic University have found a link between psychological distress and the lack of paid sick leave for American workers ages 18 to 64.

“What we know is that workers who lack paid sick leave are more likely to experience psychological distress, and it can come to a point where it can be disabling for the worker,” said Patricia Stoddard-Dare, lead author of the study and professor at Cleveland State University.

“Workers with no paid sick leave are also less likely to seek healthcare, not just for themselves, but for their family members. That’s troubling because it’s not just their healthcare at this point, but it’s the healthcare of their families.”

While paid sick leave remains an issue for many Americans, the trend shows a gradual decline in the number of workers without it. The number of workers without paid sick leave has declined from 50 percent 25 years ago, 39 percent 10 years ago, 33 percent in 2014 and 29 percent today.