Wages or Wellness?

Why paid sick leave is good for everyone

Wages or Wellness?
Caleb Walsh illustration

In a downtown Spokane restaurant kitchen during Hoopfest weekend 2013, Isaiah Kibwe Day naturally struggled to keep up with the biggest rush of the year. He was dicing an avocado when his knife slipped into his palm below the thumb. He barely avoided damage to the nerve and connective tissues and recalled that "picking up something as unimposing as a piece of paper was excruciating."

Under pressure from supervisors, Day returned a day and a half later. He dropped kitchenware and suffered avoidable burns, while blood soaked through the bandages on his hand. Literally adding insult to injury, he was never compensated for missed time. Why?

Though he worked five or more days a week for two years, he was still not allowed paid sick days.

Day is not alone. Two in five workers in Spokane make the choice between their health and paying their bills. These are minimum wage jobs with few to no benefits.

But if you're not one of them, why worry? Because once they get sick, they go to work sick. They handle your food. Your groceries. Things you take home. After a brutal flu season, not only should employees not have to go to work sick, they shouldn't be forced to go to work when they have a sick child waiting at school.

Without paid sick days, a parent must decide whether to lose pay to stay with a sick child or send the child off to daycare or school, where they may infect other children. Tara Lee, a registered nurse at Sacred Heart's pediatric ward, sees this scenario play out where parents have to leave their kids in the hospital to go to work, and she "absolutely" supports paid sick leave. "We have a higher percentage that is struggling in Spokane, and single moms are disproportionately affected," Lee says.

The impact on kids, working families and public health have sparked a movement across the country to provide earned sick leave for all workers. To date, 17 cities (including Seattle and Tacoma) and three states have passed sick leave laws.

This common sense policy is now being considered in Spokane. The Human Rights Commission made it a 2015 priority, noting that only 21 percent of workers nationally making $15,000 or less have access to sick leave. The Spokane Alliance — a nonpartisan and nonprofit alliance of congregations, unions, schools and community groups — has been meeting with small business owners, public health professionals and impacted workers to craft a solution that works for Spokane.

While the vast majority of the public supports earned sick leave, it has been a target for free-market fundamentalists. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker set an overturn model and we can expect similar alarmist rhetoric here about how the sky will fall, but businesses in other cities have been surprised by the low cost of implementation. I would pose the question: When it comes to the health of our communities and kids, can we really afford not to have earned sick leave? Washington is not Wisconsin. And in Spokane, we have an opportunity to emerge as leaders on a meaningful policy change.

Day is now a leader himself. An organizer at UFCW 21, he represents the United Food and Commercial Workers and his experience motivates his career path. "Everybody wins when we find a way to work together to raise our standards," he says. "We can finally stand as equals." ♦

Paul Dillon is the Eastern Washington Program Director for YMCA Youth & Government, teaching democracy to youth through hands-on civic engagement. He has worked in the state legislature and currently lives in downtown Spokane.

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