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Unpaid Sick Leave Diminishing for Poor

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Half of working Americans don't receive a sick day. For low-wage workers, one out of every four workers doesn't get a sick day. Beth Shulman, labor consultant and author of The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans, talks with Steve Inskeep about the issue.


For many who have jobs, the challenge is getting away from those jobs during the summer months. A study by the Center for Economic Policy Research finds that one in four Americans get no paid vacation time at all. Even fewer workers get paid sick days. The investment bank Merrill Lynch recently cut back its employees' sick days from 40 per year down to three. We called labor consultant and author Beth Shulman to ask how unusual that policy is.

Ms. BETH SHULMAN (Author, "The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans"): It's not unusual at all that employers today are cutting back almost on all benefits. But the amazing part is that it's not unusual for Americans not to have any paid sick days at all.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute, let me dissect that number a little bit. The people who don't have any paid sick days, does that include people - small business people or farmers who are working for themselves and couldn't have a paid sick day?

Ms. SHULMAN: No. This is people who are working for employers. Half of Americans don't have one paid sick day.

INSKEEP: If they take a day off, they'll lose pay.

Ms. SHULMAN: They lose pay. And many lose their jobs. I mean, for low-wage workers, it's three out of four workers do not have one paid sick day.

INSKEEP: As best you can determine, what is driving employers to reduce the amount of sick days?

Ms. SHULMAN: Well, what we've seen is there's been a shift of risk by employers to employees in all facets of the workplace. We've seen it with regard to health care, employees paying more and more premiums and in fact cutting of health care coverage. So we've seen it in a whole variety of areas, including the time off. You know, Americans only get nine days of vacation time on average. That's nothing compared to the rest of the world.

INSKEEP: I want to figure out the businesses' interest here though, because I assume a business owner is pretty good at figuring out his or her own interest. Businesses still do pay at least part of the health insurance coverage for millions of employees. If employees continue to work through some illness and get sicker, and when they finally do go to the hospital the bills might go up, your insurance rates go up, the business ends up getting bitten. I mean do people not see it that way? Am I reading it wrong?

Ms. SHULMAN: Well, not at all. I mean, this is a situation in which employers lose productivity as well. If people go to work sick, they get their fellow employees sick as well. And on top of it, it produces turnover because people who don't have paid sick days, many have to leave their jobs because they have to be home sick. You know, many workers like a person who works in a restaurant, a janitor - they deal with the public. And yet we're putting them in the position of choosing between a paycheck and going to work.

INSKEEP: How common is it to limit the number of unpaid sick days you can get? This new Merrill Lynch policy says if you miss as few as nine days in the course of a year, which is a couple of weeks - it's a lot of work, but if you missed that many, you could be fired.

Ms. SHULMAN: Right. And that happens to lots of employees. I mean that's the real problem, especially for low-wage workers who are the most vulnerable workers. They have the least amount of time off. And many of them have to end up, you know, losing their jobs. I interviewed low-wage workers all over the country. And one of the things that was shocking is that people were ending up, you know, losing their jobs merely because their child had the flu.

INSKEEP: Can I get you to put yourself in the shoes of a CEO for a moment? You're in a situation where you're having to be more and more efficient, maybe do the same job with fewer employees. What do you say to help them deal with the downside of letting people take a lot of sick days?

Ms. SHULMAN: Well, they're having to do that anyway. I mean, people get sick - so either they're coming to work sick, which is not good for the business and productivity. In fact, there's a Cornell study that shows that without paid sick days it costs $250 per employee per year. That's billions of dollars. So I would say to that CEO it's not productive to have people come to work sick. It's more productive to give them the paid time off. It's more productive to do it that way.

INSKEEP: Beth Shulman is the author of "The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans." Thanks for coming by.

Ms. SHULMAN: My pleasure.

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