Working While Sick in Pittsburgh?

Members of more than 15 local organizations came together on the steps of City Hall today and called on the Pittsburgh City Council to pass a law granting all Pittsburgh workers the chance to earn paid sick days.

While labor groups that fight year-round for workers’ rights were well represented at today’s event, it wasn’t just the usual suspects calling on the City Council to take action. Groups as diverse as the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network and the Women and Girls Foundation showed up to remind everyone this isn’t just a worker’s issue, it’s a public health issue.

Nearly 50,000 of our neighbors, friends and family members currently lack any paid sick time in Pittsburgh. That’s around 40 percent of our total workforce—50,000 people forced to make a choice between going to work sick or staying home and losing badly needed pay.

That’s a situation that definitely needs to change, according to Rachel, one of the attendees I met today. Rachel has worked in the service industry 22 years, the last 13 in Pittsburgh and the last eight at the same establishment. She is a member of the Restaurant Opportunity Coalition, an organization that is also supporting the paid sick days legislation.

No one wants to think about sick people handling their food. Food service workers don’t want to show up at work sick, either. In fact, it’s actually the rule at her restaurant that employees aren’t allowed to come to work sick. It says so right in the manual. But Rachel had this to say about her workplace: “Probably not a day goes by without at least one person showing up to work sick.”

So if no one wants it to happen and it’s even against the rules, why is it the case that people are showing up to work sick anyway?

Sadly, the answer is really simple. If you don’t have paid sick days, you can’t afford to take a day off work. So even though Rachel says her own boss is generally OK with people taking time off when they are sick, it doesn’t matter all that much when you have bills to pay at the end of the month.

Rachel related a time when she had an injured foot that required stitches. She was thankful her boss was OK with her taking some time off, but she went back to work a week earlier than she should have because she couldn’t afford not to.

No one should have to hobble around at a job that requires people to be on their feet for the entire shift because she has no other choice. No one should be required to stay home due to illness but left with no way to make up the lost pay. “It’s makes us feel like second class citizens who don’t matter. It’s like we’re expendable,” Rachel told me. Management has access to paid sick days. So do 60% of workers in Pittsburgh. So why shouldn’t everyone?

But even those who aren’t compelled by the moral argument to do the right thing to help someone else should take note of the fact that they’d really be helping themselves.

“I’d think everyone would like the peace of mind to go out to eat without being afraid of catching something,” Rachel says. She related instances where after one person came to work with the norovirus, a common stomach flu, almost every employee had gotten sick within a week. What are the odds that some customers got sick as well? At one past job, she even saw a sick line cook having to take regular breaks to run to the restroom due to illness, and being asked by the manager to stay and keep cooking despite the fact she was throwing up.

Check, please?

“Everyone deserves paid sick time,” Rachel says. “It’s even more critical for those working with food.”

Sadly, those working in the food service industry are among the least likely to have it. The same can be said for custodial workers, grocery workers and even home health care workers. These are the industries in which you least want someone showing up at work with a contagious illness. But the pressures of low wages and lack of paid sick time mean that these are the same industries in which you’re more likely to find it taking place.

And as Rachel told me, it’s time for all of that to change.

All Pittsburgh workers deserve the chance to earn paid sick time. We all stand to be happier and healthier as a result.

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