By Katrina vanden Heuvel
Special to The Washington Post
— Ian Rizzio was a 24-year-old mechanical engineering student in Portland, Ore., managing a sandwich shop to pay his tuition. One day he woke up sick but went to work anyway, as he later testified to the Portland City Council. After vomiting in the bathroom, Rizzio spent two hours trying — unsuccessfully — to reach his boss before going home to rest.
When Rizzio went to work the next day, he was fired. With $35,000 in student loans, he feared he'd have to withdraw from school.
Unfortunately, Rizzio is not the only American with such a story. More than 40 million Americans — disproportionately low-income, black and Latino workers — cook, clean, fold and ring us up without any paid time off when they or their children are ill. These workers must choose between their job and caring for a sick child. They handle our food and our purchases, coughing and sniffling through tissues, to avoid being handed a pink slip.
The absence of paid sick leave is a glaring injustice that puts Americans in the distinguished company of workers in Syria, Somalia and North Korea. It's an affront to our values and the dignity of a hard day's work. And it's a drag on our families, businesses and society.
For all the vibrant debate on work-life balance and encouraging women to "lean in" at their workplace, sometimes we need to make it easier for working women and men to stay home. After all, should catching a cold really cause you to wind up out in the cold?
Many businesses claim that paid sick leave is another burdensome regulation, part of some dastardly "mandate madness," but the truth is that paid sick leave keeps workers and businesses healthy. Employees who have sick leave are less likely to go to work sick. They're less likely to send their sick children to school or day care, where contagious kids can infect others. And they're less likely to wind up in the emergency room because they weren't able to visit a doctor during the day — leading to lower health-care costs for employers.
According to one study, offering U.S. workers seven paid sick days a year would save the economy an estimated $160 billion annually in reduced turnover and increased productivity.
Fortunately, the push for paid sick leave has picked up steam. Since 2006, when San Francisco became the first city to pass sick-leave laws, Washington D.C., Seattle and Connecticut have enacted versions of this humane, common-sense legislation. A few weeks ago, the Portland City Council voted unanimously to require paid sick leave, thanks to the testimony and advocacy of Rizzio and others. The Philadelphia City Council has passed similar legislation, which Mayor Michael Nutter threatens to veto.
Despite some critics' predictions, these laws haven't brought businesses to their knees. After Connecticut passed its sick-leave law, employment rose in the most affected industries. The same happened in San Francisco, where employment in the service and hospitality sectors grew faster than it did in neighboring counties, and where, during the Great Recession, more than 80 percent of employers surveyed said the law had no impact on their bottom line.
The latest — and sweetest — illustration of this movement's momentum comes from my home town of New York, where City Council Speaker and Democratic mayoral front-runner Christine Quinn had refused to bring a paid-sick-leave bill to a vote. For three straight years.
Some 39 of the 51 council members, a clear majority, supported the bill, which would have required businesses with more than five employees to offer five days of paid sick leave. Nearly three-quarters of New Yorkers — including 60 percent of Republicans — said they would go even further and require employers to provide seven days of paid sick leave.
Yet Quinn, eager to court the city's pro-business elite — and having accepting $370,000 in campaign contributions from sick-leave opponents — held out, insisting she was protecting small businesses in a shaky economic recovery.
So, as has been the story in every successful paid-sick-leave campaign, New York organized. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem sent Quinn a strongly worded letter, signed by 200 prominent women, including former Manhattan borough president Ruth Messinger and "Sex and the City" actress Cynthia Nixon. The besieged unions — so accustomed these days to fighting a rear-guard action — came out in full force, along with black and Latino leaders and prominent philanthropists such as Jennifer Buffett. Diverse and determined groups, from the community service society to the working families party, put forward the intellectual arguments and the political strategy necessary for reform. And the net-roots — especially younger feminist writers and bloggers — galvanized the issue with the urgency it deserved.
This effort made paid sick leave the central issue in the Democratic mayoral primary and ultimately made Quinn's position — as the only Democratic candidate opposed — a major liability. In the face of this pressure, she relented last week and agreed to a compromise measure requiring businesses with at least 15 employees to provide five days of paid sick leave.
It's not a perfect bill, but it's proof of the power of a movement of everyday people whose cause is common sense and fair. And now, with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and otherssome calling for a federal Healthy Families Act that would establish national sick-day standards, that movement has a chance to sweep the country.
America has reached a tipping point, and we're sick of waiting.