Small businesses support bill that would ensure no Mainer has to choose between income and health

Millett introduces legislation for universal sick leave, including paid leave for 230,000 workers.

Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, has introduced legislation to establish a universal right to sick leave in Maine.

“Sick leave is a benefit white-collar professionals take for granted. But for thousands and thousands of Mainers, particularly low-income workers, a lack of access to sick leave means the decision to take time off from work to recover from illness or take care of a sick child or parent is a choice between the health of their families and their financial security,” said Sen. Millett.

According to research by the State Innovation Exchange, nearly one in four adults in the United States says they have been fired or threatened with job loss for taking time off to recover from illness or care for a sick loved one. 

The legislation (see attached) would require businesses with 50 or more employees to offer paid sick leave. Roughly 230,000 people work at such companies, and would no longer be forced to choose between their health and their financial security. The bill would require smaller businesses to allow workers to accumulate unpaid leave, guaranteeing that no worker will be fired or punished for falling ill.

The bill would allow employees to use sick leave when they themselves are sick, or to care for a sick family member, and would allow workers to use sick days as “safe days” to recover from domestic violence or sexual assault.

Low-income workers – including food service, personal health care and child care workers – are among the least likely to have paid sick days. Nationally, less than one of every three workers who earn $19,000 or less per year have access to paid sick days, compared to more than 80 percent of workers who make $65,000 or more per year.

“When working families have to choose between their health and their income, they jeopardize both,” said Senate Democratic Leader Troy Jackson, who joined Sen. Millett at the bill’s unveiling. “Working while sick is a surefire way to stay sick longer and be less productive on the job. Staying home means losing income or worse, being fired. The United States is one of the only advanced countries in the world that forces working people to make this choice. Maine can and should break out from the pack and ensure fairness for workers and families with universal sick leave.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than 2.5 million cases of foodborne illness per year were caused by sick restaurant workers contaminating food while they were at work – and more than half of all norovirus outbreaks can be traced back to sick food service workers.

Here’s what others are saying about sick leave:

Eliza Townsend, Executive Director of the Maine Women’s Lobby:

"It's women who both disproportionately bear the burdens of caretaking while also being more likely to work in low-wage jobs with no paid sick leave. Ensuring that our policies allow workers to balance their responsibilities at work and at home is key to the economic security of women and their families.

Dory Waxman, small business owner in Portland:

"Along with my family, I co-founded two clothing manufacturing businesses in Portland — Old Port Wool & Textile and American Roots. Combined, depending on the season, my two companies employ as many as 15 Mainers and we offer paid sick leave to all our workers.  If our small businesses can do it, others can too. Our policy helps us attract, train, and retain workers who give us 100 percent. We do it not only because of the morale and productivity benefits for our businesses, but because it's the right thing to do. No worker should have to choose between their health and their income. Universal sick leave will mean a more productive workforce, less turnover, improved public health and stronger families with more buying power.”

David Bourassa, technician at Sappi Fine Paper in Skowhegan:

“I’ve spent 33 years, nearly my entire working career, at the paper mill in Skowhegan. We don’t get sick days. In fact, the company can penalize you for calling out sick. The men and women I work with are good people with a good work ethic. None of them want to miss a day of work. But you can’t choose when you get sick. It happens to all of us. Forcing people to go to work sick means they can’t work as hard, they can’t work as well and they run the risk of making others sick too. Letting workers take a day off to get well would help workers get back to 100 percent as quickly as possible, and keep more people from becoming sick. Paid sick leave just makes sense.”