Politics

Evan Horowitz

Everyone gets sick. Should everyone get sick days?

It doesn’t matter what vitamins you take or how often you wash your hands, occasionally you’re going to get sick. And sometimes your kids will get sick.

What do you do if you need to take care of yourself, or your kids, or perhaps your parents — and you also have to go to work?

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If you’re lucky, you can call your boss and ask to take a sick day, but in Massachusetts roughly 900,000 workers don’t have paid sick leave.

Come November, state voters get to decide whether all workers should have the right to earn sick time. It’s ballot initiative No. 4. Before election season heats up and you start to see calls for “Yes on 4” and “No on 4,” here’s what you need to know.

What would the initiative do?

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Its most basic goal is to ensure that when people get sick, or need to tend to sick family members, they can take a reasonable amount of time off without getting fired. More specifically:

• It would let workers earn sick days just like they earn salary: one hour of sick time for every 30 hours of work.

• If you work at a business with more than 10 employees, you would get paid for your sick days.

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• While businesses with 10 or fewer employees would have to provide sick days, they wouldn’t need to pay employees for that time.

How many workers would be affected?

Raise Up Massachusetts, the group leading the charge for the bill, claims that 1 million workers in Massachusetts don’t get paid sick time, but the number of people who would benefit from the bill is probably closer to 500,000. Why the difference? Three reasons:

• Raise Up Massachusetts rounds up to 1 million. The actual number of workers without paid sick time is closer to 900,000.

• Some of those 900,000 work at businesses with fewer than 10 employees and already get unpaid leave. Even if the bill passes, they wouldn’t be affected.

• Another chunk of those 900,000 workers already have other kinds of leave, like vacation time. If sick days became a requirement, they may find that instead of 10 vacation days they get five vacation days and five sick days, which has less of a clear benefit.

Even with these exceptions, though, the law is likely to help about 1 in every 7 workers in the state.

Are there any other benefits?

Apart from the obvious one of ensuring that workers don’t have to choose between staying home sick and getting fired, there is also a public health argument to be made. Sick workers spread germs (think short-order cooks with the flu). Letting them and their germs stay home could help limit the spread of diseases.

What are the costs?

When employees take sick days, employers have to find other ways to fill the gap. Sometimes that means hiring a temp worker or a substitute, which costs money. This is a particular burden for small businesses like restaurants and retail storefronts, where losing even a single waiter or salesperson for a few days can be a real hardship. That’s one reason the bill gives businesses with fewer than 11 employees the option to provide unpaid leave.

The other cost to businesses comes from having to adjust policies. Imagine you’re a nationwide chain store that doesn’t provide sick days, but that has a “flex leave” policy that employees can use for vacation or sick time or personal days. If the ballot initiative passes, your employees won’t see any real benefit but you may have to create a new policy for Massachusetts and hire experts to ensure it conforms to the law.

Has this been tried elsewhere?

Connecticut, Washington D.C., Seattle, San Francisco, and most recently New York City have all passed laws guaranteeing sick leave, and the effects seem to be mostly positive.

Sick days have become more widely available, and in general the costs have proved pretty manageable.

The Urban Institute conduced interviews with a range of San Francisco businesses after its measure was implemented and found that “most employers were able to implement the paid sick leave ordinance with minimal to moderate effects on their overall business.”

Likewise, a city audit of the Seattle policy found that the costs were “modest and smaller than anticipated.”

Is there anything else worth noting?

Just because you get sick days doesn’t mean you’ll use them.

Most workers don’t. Looking at data from across the country, the Economic Policy Institute found that workers who get five sick days per year use something like two and a half.

In other words, they don’t treat sick days like a bunch of free days off. They hold on to them, like an insurance policy, for when they’re needed.

Evan Horowitz can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com.
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