Paid sick leave bill gains support

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By MariAn Gail Brown

Posted: 03/30/2009 08:01:39 PM EDT

When baker Carrie Breslin gets sick, she does what she always does at the bakery/restaurant where she's employed. She buckles down and goes to work.

If she sat in an office cubicle or had a door to wall herself off from her co-workers, perhaps that might make sense. But Breslin, who has been in the food-service industry for four years, handles food and interacts with customers. The chance for spreading colds and food-borne illnesses is high.

"There are definitely times when I've been sick," Breslin says. "What I do is I tough it out and just go in. I might leave early if I have to. But I really don't want to call in sick because if I do, I know I won't get paid, and I can't afford that."

A bill before the General Assembly that promises to give Connecticut employees paid sick time, up to 6.5 days a year, appears to be gaining traction with support from public health advocates, food service workers and consumers.

The bill affects any business with 50 or more employees. Those businesses account for 54,221 food-service workers. If the Legislature passes the bill, Connecticut would become the first state in the nation to guarantee ill waiters, waitresses, cooks and other food handlers paid sick days. Only San Francisco and Washington, D.C., provide restaurant workers similar paid sick time, says Jeanne Mejeur, program director at the National Conference of State Legislatures, although three other states, Massachusetts, California and Illinois, are considering such legislation.

"If people knew how often sick food service workers were preparing and serving their food," Breslin said, "they'd be alarmed."

In Connecticut, as many as 631,270 employees, or 44 percent of the private sector work force, have no paid sick days, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and 254,901 work in either food service, retail or health care, places where there is substantial interaction with the public.

Eighteen million cases of food-borne cases of norovirus, a virulent food-borne illness, occur each year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Half of those cases are linked to ill and contagious food service workers in restaurants.

Joe Dinkin, a spokesman for Connecticut Working Families, which backs the paid sick leave bill, says despite the ailing economy, it makes sense for the Legislature to provide paid sick leave for all workers now.

"This bill would not bankrupt small businesses," Dinkin says. "In fact, the damage done by one sick worker spreading illness to [restaurant] customers and others in terms of missed time from work and the medical care is far greater than the cost of offering paid sick time. This is a bill that represents a public policy decision, that it is better to pay a sick day than risk an outbreak of [foodborne] illness."

That's not how opponents of the bill see it. Among those lined up in opposition to the bill are the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, the Connecticut Restaurant Association, the Connecticut Association of Nonprofits, the Connecticut Construction Industries Association and a number of large employers, including AT&T.

They claim workers would abuse it, businesses should set their own sick leave policies, and it represents an "entitlement" they can't afford.

"Restaurants cannot afford another mandate, especially as they work to survive in the weakest economy in decades. Mandated paid leave would come at a significant cost to restaurants and other small businesses. The National Restaurant Association is very concerned about paid-leave mandates, particularly their impact on small employers, and supports employer efforts to provide flexible, voluntary leave benefits for their work force," says Mike Donohue, vice president of the National Restaurant Association in Washington, D.C.

The vast majority of restaurant help, estimated at 85 percent of the food-industry work force, in Connecticut has no paid sick days.

That's not the situation at the Pond House Restaurant in West Hartford, where owner Louis Lista has offered his staff paid sick days. At a hearing before the Legislature's Labor Committee, Lista noted once he started offering paid sick time, his turnover rate dropped and he was saving money.

Ruben Luna, who has worked in the kitchen at the Pond House for more than five years, says the paid sick time is a welcome benefit to him and his co-workers.


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