Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Is it 1917 or 2017? Wobblies lose campaign for sick leave at U.S. sandwich chain

This July 3, 2017 article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune captured my attention because of the incongruous tale of the Wobblies - the Industrial Workers of the World, first established in 1905 - losing a campaign to unionize a local Jimmy Johns sandwich restaurant and obtain sick leave for its employees.  Wait, what?  Is it 1917 or 2017?  The Wobblies are still actively organizing workers?  According to the Wobblies' web site, no, they did not disappear in 1917.  After a resurgence about 40 years ago, they seem to have a number of active campaigns throughout the United States - an indicator that we may be in another gilded age.

Of course there's that other thing that hasn't changed in the U.S. in the last century.  Most Americans don't have the legal right to or access to paid sick leave.  According to a July 2016 report released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, among the poorest 25% at the lower end of the labor market only 41% have access to paid sick leave.  Access to sick leave increases as wages increase.  Among workers in the top 25% of the labor market, 87% have access to paid sick leave.

The federal appellate court decision reported on in the Star Tribune article criticized workers for being "disloyal" because they posted images on Facebook showing that customers don't know if a sandwich was made by a healthy worker or a sick worker bringing germs to work because she can't afford to stay home because she doesn't have paid sick leave.

Wobblies in Minneapolis are not the only ones making the argument that paid sick leave is necessary for the health and well being not only of workers but of the public as well.  In a 2010 report issued by the World Health Organization (WHO), The case for paid sick leave, Xenia Scheil-Adlung & Lydia Sandner wrote, "In fact, the absence of paid sick days forces ill workers to decide between caring for their health or losing jobs and income, choosing between deteriorating health and risking to impoverish themselves and often their families."  They also point out that a number of workers throughout the world without paid sick leave worked even after they contracted the H1N1 virus, causing over 7 million other Americans to contract the virus.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also came out in a 2012 article arguing that paid sick leave is needed to protect public health and safety. Think of that next time you head to the local burger chain around the corner for an illicit unhealthy midnight snack.  

According to Scheil-Adlung and Sandner, 145 countries around the world - a group among which the U.S. will not be found - have laws ensuring between 7 and 30 days of paid sick leave to workers each year.  Granted, high rates of employment outside the formal economy in some countries mean that the legal requirement does not extend to as many people as it should.  It cannot be denied, however, that paid sick leave is an area where the U.S. has fallen behind 75% of the rest of the world.  When low income countries like Cambodia and Bolivia have laws guaranteeing paid sick leave, one does wonder what is wrong with the biggest economy in the world.

It wasn't until 2012 that Connecticut became the first U.S. state to require employers to provide paid sick leave to their employees.  Now, according to guidance on complying with paid sick leave laws from the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), seven states (Arizona, California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Oregon, Vermont and Washington) and the District of Columbia require employers to provide paid sick leave to their employees.  SHRM also reports that the U.S. states of Maine, Maryland, Michigan (Michigan doesn't already have sick leave?), Pennsylvania and hey - Minnesota! - currently have paid sick leave legislation pending.

Affordability may be a genuine concern for some small employers.  This concern can be addressed by legislative tiers of sick leave coverage.  For example, under District of Columbia law, employers with 25-99 employees must provide 5 days of sick leave a year and those with 100 or more employees must provide 7 days of paid sick leave a year.  Very small employers with 24 or fewer employees must provide 3 days of sick leave a year.  Other examples cited in the WHO's study on paid sick leave include social security or public insurance programs to cover paid sick leave might be unpalatable at the federal level in the U.S. but might be considered by some U.S. states.  Even when affordability is a concern, some small employers still want to provide some measure of paid time off.  Not only can human resources organizations like SHRM provide guidance, but there are a number of resources available from entities like Quickbooks and Dun & Bradstreet that can help small employers tweak payroll budgets to ensure their employees have access to paid sick leave and other paid time off when they need it.

Wait, what - is it 1917 or 2017?  Did I just write a blog post arguing that U.S. law must extend access to paid sick leave to workers?  Hasn't that been a right in most other countries for almost the last century?  You'd think we don't have the legal right to paid vacation or holidays either.  Oh, yeah.  About that...