Need for sick leave is nothing to sneeze at

February 07, 2005|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - Not long ago, a young actor I know was doing a gig as a waiter. Faced with a truly obnoxious customer, he finally leaned over the table and said theatrically, "Sir, do you realize that I'm going to be spending time alone with your dinner?"

This was a memorable moment in the annals of sick humor. But this winter, many of the people spending time alone with your dinner - or huddling around your desk - are just plain sick.

A particularly nasty little virus has taken down two members of my family, and brought Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to the floor in the middle of a speech. The senator, however, picked herself up and went off to her next speech, thereby proving that she was suffering from "presenteeism." Presenteeism isn't an ideology, a doctrine or any other "ism." It's the opposite of absenteeism. It's the practice of coming to work when you should be in bed.

This "ism" has become a buzzword in the winter of our discontent. It's the trendy story about workers who fear being considered slackers, have a contagious work ethic or suffer from what one researcher called the "macho syndrome," though macho of a unisex variety.

But in real life, what drags a huge number of people to work isn't the macho, it's the money.

Today, 47 percent of the private employees in this country get no paid sick leave. That includes 76 percent of low-wage workers.

In addition, 86 million workers don't have a single paid sick day that can be used to care for their kids or their parents. Debra Ness of the National Partnership for Women and Families puts it this way: "A lot of women are one sick child away from losing their job."

Despite that, the value of paid sick leave has gotten little attention. The last comprehensive legislation dealing with work and family and health was the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993. It took 13 years of effort before we were guaranteed 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the serious illness of a family member or ourselves.

This legislation has been used by more than 50 million Americans. But FMLA covers only the 60 percent of workers in companies with 50 or more employees. Three-quarters of the people who need but don't take leave say it's because they can't afford to lose a paycheck. One in 10 who takes leave actually ends up on public assistance.

Now, the National Partnership for Women and Families, the lead group that pushed FMLA up the Hill, is pushing the boulder of paid sick leave. A bill to get seven days of paid sick leave in companies of 15 or more - days that you can use for yourself or a family member - was first introduced to Congress last summer. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy just pledged to reintroduce it early this year.

Not even the most ardent supporter expects a victory in this Congress. Indeed, it's rumored that the Bush administration wants to scale back FMLA itself.

You don't have to be a working mother juggling a job, a flu, a sick child and a pile of bills to get it. As Ms. Ness puts it, "Very few people believe that you can go day after day, year after year without sick leave."

In 117 countries, workers are guaranteed a week or more. Our federal government gives employees 13 such days. Momentum is building in the states, where 21 bills were introduced last year. California has become the first state to have partially paid leave. Could this be contagious? After generations of social change, the policy lags behind the pro-family rhetoric. That's hardly a news bulletin. If there is any common ground, it's a shared understanding of the difficulties of balancing work and family, jobs and the "rest of life."

"People are struggling just to meet their emergency needs," adds Ms. Ness, who is out to build a bipartisan coalition for paid leave. "We have to ask what does it take to really ensure that families thrive?" Much more than presenteeism at work and absenteeism at home.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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