John Edward teaches economics at Bentley and UMass Lowell. He’s a frequent contributor of columns on economic issues
Question 4: A YES VOTE would entitle employees in Massachusetts to earn and use sick time according to certain conditions.
Question 4 would make paid sick leave available to many Massachusetts workers who do not currently enjoy that benefit. Workers could accrue up to 5 days of leave. They would have to work to earn the benefit. Paid sick time would cover employee illnesses and medical appointments, and for their spouses, children, and parents. Importantly, there is a non-retaliation clause. Firms with 10 or fewer workers are exempt.
Opponents of question 4 cite the increased cost to businesses of providing paid sick leave. That is a weak argument.
Connecticut passed a similar law in 2011. The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) studied the effects of the law and found:
• Only 6.5 percent of firms reported an increase in costs of more than 5 percent,
• The administrative costs were “minimal,”
• Half of workers used only 3 of the 5 days granted, a third used none, and
• After experiencing the results, 3 out of 4 firms supported the mandate.
There is a stronger argument regarding the costs of not having paid sick time. There is the cost of lost productivity when workers are on the job. Sick workers are inefficient workers. For some occupations, sick workers are a danger to themselves and others.
There is the cost of lost productivity due to contagious illness. Workers who force themselves to come to work put other workers at risk. A study performed after the H1N1 flu pandemic showed that the risk of getting the flu was significantly higher in workplaces without sick leave.
In Massachusetts, a little over half of all service workers do not have paid sick leave. Many of these people have face-to-face time with customers. Children are more at risk if their parents do not take time off to care for them or bring them to medical appointments.
Then there is the increased healthcare expense of people not taking care of themselves. The Centers for Disease Control recommends staying at home for at least 24 hours if you have flu. If workers avoid treatment or self-administered rest, they are more likely to develop complications. Business costs rise if they lose workers due to health problems.
Again referring to the CEPR study, Connecticut firms reported a number of positive side effects of paid sick time:
• Improved productivity,
• Improved morale,
• Increased motivation, and
• Increased loyalty.
It is not clear that legislating through ballot initiative is the best way to go. Beacon Hill may have produced better legislation. The law passed by the Connecticut legislature differs from the law we are voting on:
• They exempt firms with 50 or fewer employees,
• Workers accrue sick time a little slower,
• Parents are not covered,
• Both laws cover part-time workers, but Connecticut does not cover temp workers.
Yet, the Massachusetts legislature did not act. Some businesses say they would be willing to offer paid sick leave, but that the government should not force them to. Yet, about one-third of Massachusetts workers do not get paid sick leave.
Predominately, those without paid sick leave are low-wage workers. According to the federal department of Health and Human Services, 61 percent of workers in private industry have paid sick time. Only 30 percent of workers in the bottom quintile of wage earners get paid sick time. For the top quintile it is 84 percent.
The United States, and Massachusetts, have historically high levels of income inequality. There is an increasing awareness of how damaging increasing extreme levels of inequality could be for our economy.
Paid sick time is a public policy choice that would alleviate some of the harsh symptoms of inequality. That is why the non-retaliation clause is so important. According to the Center for American Progress: “Twenty-three percent of adults say they’ve been threatened with termination or fired for taking time off when they or a family member were sick.” It would not be a stretch to conjecture that most of them are low-wage adults.
Recently the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston hosted a conference dedicated to the topic of inequality. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen has characterized inequality as “one of the most disturbing trends facing the nation.” Many news outlets reported that at the Boston conference she expressed “great concern” saying:
I think it is appropriate to ask whether this trend [of widening inequality] is compatible with values rooted in our nation’s history, among them the high value Americans have traditionally placed on equality of opportunity.
Paid sick time would be a modest yet positive step toward reducing inequality. It is an issue of values. It is an issue of equality of opportunity.
Vote Yes on Question 4.