Earned Sick Days in Philly- So Low-Wage Workers Can Get Sick

Karen Barnes, a Philadelphia day care center employee, knew just by looking that the child was ill. She immediately contacted the parents and separated the child so as not to spread illness to the other children. Three days later, her employer told her she looked sick herself and sent her home. It turned out she’d caught impetigo, an extremely contagious skin infection children often get. She was forced to take two weeks off work, and that meant two weeks without income.

Rosemary Devine is a waitress. She earns $2.17 per hour- the same hourly wage servers earned 25+ years ago- but makes most of her money from tips. Besides the financial incentive to work while sick, Rosemary worries she’ll be fired if she misses a shift, or, God forbid, two shifts in a row. But when Rosemary goes to work sick, her illness can spread pretty quickly to fellow workers and customers.

Four out of five of the lowest income workers in Philadelphia – an estimated 210,000 employees, primarily in the hospitality and care-giving sectors, a majority of them women – have no provision for paid sick days. So if they or a family member gets sick, tough luck. Many workers that do have paid sick days are not able to use them to care for family members. When workers are not allowed to take sick days, illness spreads, forcing formerly healthy people, people who were simply eating lunch, or whose child is friends with a child who should have stayed home, to have to use their own sick days – if they’ve got them.

The Earned Sick Days Bill, Bill 130004, would mandate that Philadelphia employers with five or more employees allow their workers to accrue time that can be used toward paid sick days off. It works like this: for every forty hours on the job, you become eligible for one hour of paid sick leave. For small businesses, there is a cap at four days per year. For large employers, it’s up to seven days. Businesses with five or fewer employees- mom and pop businesses- are exempt. Paid sick days can be taken if the worker is sick, or if a person in the worker’s care, like a child, is sick.

Other cities have passed earned sick days legislation, including San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, DC. It’s set to pass in New York City, and recently passed for the state of Connecticut. These enlightened jurisdictions recognize the basic fact that people get sick. Yet Dr. Kevin Klatte, representing the Philadelphia County Dental Society, lamented during a Philadelphia City Council Health Committee hearing on the bill held March 5th, that unscheduled absences disrupt his business and stress his patients. No doubt they do. Presumably he prefers his employees simply to never get sick. He seemed to forbid it.

Naturally Philadelphia business groups oppose the legislation, because, they say, it imposes an undue burden on business. This is pretty much what business always says, and it’s true that implementing this new bill would place additional costs on businesses. In the same March 5th Health Committee hearing, City Commerce Director Alan Greenberger (the Mayor declined to send his Health Commissioner to represent the Administration) and others fighting this bill tried to put numbers to their fears: $350 million cost to business to implement, sky-high litigation fees, and, most dramatically, a loss of 4,000 jobs in a city with 11% unemployment. Greenberger asserted that in Philadelphia, the point was to have any kind of job at all. It’s like when people are starving they will eat dirt, because it’s there and quells the pain in their belly. But it brings no actual sustenance.

Trouble is, City officials are all getting their information from the same place, the Dunkelberg Report, prepared by Temple professor and economist William Dunkelberg for the Chamber of Commerce. According to economist Stephen Herzenberg, Executive Director of the Keystone Research Center, the Dunkelberg report has never been released to the public. But it has been circulated to members of City government, business, and editorial boards to lend credence to the belief that treating workers with humanity would be bad for business. Herzenberg provided serious critique for the Dunkelberg study in his testimony:

  • It contains an elementary mistake that doubles the estimated potential maximum cost of the bill.
  • It makes an implausible assumption about how many earned sick days workers will actually take and fails to use readily available data on how much workers actually use paid sick time. (The data says the average is 2.3 days/year.)
  • It overstates the adverse effect on jobs by using a questionable methodology that exaggerates the sensitivity of employer demand for labor to the implementation of earned sick days.
  • It includes implausible high estimates of the cost of compliance with a paid sick days ordinance.


The Dunkelberg report does not consider any of the costs-saving benefits for employers or the public, such as higher productivity, lower turnover, and more worker loyalty. Herzenberg argued that businesses that don’t offer employees access to paid sick time externalize those costs and force the public, ultimately, to pay them, just like businesses that pollute but don’t pay for the inevitable negative consequences. In other words, when sick people spread their illness, the people around them end up in the emergency rooms or missing work themselves, and those costs are born by the public.

In the case of Earned Sick Days, experts do have actual data to go from, and the actual data from San Francisco confirms that, contrary to prevailing business wisdom, the city’s business sector has actually grown since they passed their bill, through the recession, at a greater rate than surrounding counties. Dr. Claudia Williams, representing the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) to Philadelphia’s City Council, said for Philadelphia the Earned Sick Days bill, if passed, would produce a modest net benefit of a half million dollars to local businesses, once all the pros and cons were balanced out ($51.7 million in savings less $51.2 million to implement). Yes, that’s right. According to the IWPR, there is good reason to believe that this policy might actually be good for business as well as workers. And there is evidence to suggest that businesses offering earned sick days are the ones workers prefer to work for, and remain loyal to. The Christian Science Monitor, reporting on an IWPR survey of San Francisco employers four years after implementation of their policy found:

“…two-thirds of employers support the law. It found that it is rare for employees to misuse paid sick days and that workers tend to save them for emergency use and thus end up using far fewer than the maximum allowed.”

During the Health Committee hearing, Councilman Wilson Goode got Greenberger to admit the San Francisco bill has been successful. He also asked, rhetorically, if the Commerce Department thought Earned Sick Days was such a job-killer, why didn’t it come up in the recently released Jobs Commission Report? Because, he answered, the Commission was data-driven. The objections of the City Administration are not.

In an editorial board reversal, Philadelphia’s Daily News came out in support of the bill, noting “a few years of hard times for many workers, including a confluence of worker-punishing trends that have seen stagnant wages and an erosion of benefits” since it’s opposition to a similar 2011 bill, dramatically vetoed by Mayor Michael Nutter at the Chamber of Commerce. It also noted the Economic Policy Institute statistic showing that in 2012, “corporate profits had hit record highs, while worker wages fell to their lowest-ever share of the GDP.” Most persuasive was the DN’s argument against supporting poverty, misery, and sickness:

“Nobody sets out to create poverty, but we should be more cognizant of policies that lead to the kind of dead ends that throw people into poverty. Illnesses leading to job loss, for example, can too easily lead to poverty. And it’s not just government’s job to solve it.”

There are many reasons why business may not see Philadelphia as the best place to locate, but likely a paid sick days mandate is not one of them. Business insists that now is a terrible time, economically-speaking, for business, Economic Policy Institute statistics aside. Many members of Council echo this view. For businesses opposing the Earned Sick Time bill, it is the worst kind of knee-jerk chauvinism. For the politicians who oppose it, especially the Democrats, it is the most cynical of political calculations: who will mean more to them come election time? Their corporate donors or low-wage workers.

For waitress Rosemary Devine, it’s about a basic human right,

“I’ve heard some people say they agree with Paid Sick Days in concept. Well, I don’t get sick in concept. I get sick in reality. I have to pay bills in reality. People need to be allowed to get sick.”

Find out more about the Earned Sick Time bill in Philadelphia at the Coalition for Healthy Families & Workplaces website. And contact your District Councilmember and the At-Large members soon, so they know you support this basic worker right.


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