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The Lack of Sick Leave One Consequence of the Demise of Unions

March 15, 2020

Today’s NYTimes includes an editorial titled “The Companies Putting Profits Ahead of Public Health”. Disgustingly and disgracefully fast food companies are the biggest culprits when it comes to insisting that its employees come to work even if their ill, a phenomenon that led to this finding:

Most American restaurants do not offer paid sick leave. Workers who fall sick face a simple choice: Work and get paid or stay home and get stiffed. Not surprisingly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2014 that fully 20 percent of food service workers had come to work at least once in the previous year “while sick with vomiting or diarrhea.”

…Companies have long sought to obscure the details of their sick leave policies, but The Times has obtained new data from The Shift Project, a nationwide survey of tens of thousands of retail workers conducted by the sociologists Daniel Schneider of the University of California, Berkeley; and Kristen Harknett of the University of California, San Francisco. While the federal government reports aggregate data on benefits, the Shift Project data — from its most recent surveys in 2018 and 2019 — provides a look at the benefits offered by individual corporations, published here for the first time. This makes it possible to name names.

The vast majority of workers at large restaurant chains report they do not get paid sick leave, except in the minority of states and cities where it is required by law. The list of malefactors includes the giants of fast food, like McDonald’s, Subway and Chick-fil-A, as well as sit-down restaurants like Cracker Barrel, Outback Steakhouse and the Cheesecake Factory.

And it’s not just restaurants. The data also shows most workers at the supermarket chains Wegmans, Kroger, Meijer and Giant Eagle reported that they did not get paid sick leave.

The lack of sick leave is not only a strain on the workers who need to show up when they are not feeling well, it exacerbates the spread of epidemics.

…Companies that do not pay sick workers to stay home are endangering their workers, their customers and the health of the broader public. Studies show that paying for sick employees to stay home significantly reduces the spread of the seasonal flu. There’s every reason to think it would help to check the new coronavirus, too.

How did it get this way? The NYTimes editorial doesn’t mention it explicitly, but I know from personal experience as a part-time worker and a former school Superintendent that the lack of unions representing employees plays a major role in this change-for-the worse.

Back in the late 1960s I worked as a part-time cashier at Dale’s Supermarket in Philadelphia. At the time I initially bemoaned the union dues deducted from my paycheck but came to understand that the contract provided sick leave, insurance (if I opted for it), and assurances that scheduling would be done a week in advance using a seniority-based algorithm. Dales eventually went out of business, in part because competitors paid lower wages to non-union at-will employees who got none of those benefits. The government has made it increasingly difficult for employees to organize and has done nothing to guarantee voters a living wage, health insurance, sick leave, or predictable work schedules. The result is a boatload of folks who are one paycheck away from disaster and a small number of plutocrats who wrote the rulebooks to put them there. Those who fall off the precipice when their part-time hours are cut will be wanting a safety net. Here’s hoping the libertarian legislators who wrote the rules since the Reagan administration repair the ones they took away in the name of the magic of the free market.

As a public school administrator for 35 years, 32 of which I headed or participated in negotiations with labor unions, I witnessed the erosion of the influence of unions– especially in the non-certified staff areas. While teachers unions maintained their foothold in collective bargaining, school districts increasingly outsourced things like food services, custodial services, and transportation to the private sector. This lowered the operating budgets of school districts, making the “shareholder-taxpayers” happy, but diminished the wages and eroded the working conditions of those who formerly worked for the school district. With every successive recession that occurred from 1980, when I began my career as a Superintendent, through 2011 when I retired, more and more services were “outsourced” which meant fewer and fewer “public” employees were governed by the union contracts.

This shedding of union employees in the public sector mirrored what was taking place in the economy at large: it benefitted those who could afford homes and pay property taxes and hurt those who earned the least and were most likely to live in rental properties or in “affordable” homes.

MAYBE one positive effect of the Covid-19 outbreak will be a collective dawning that our system as it is set up now benefits fewer and fewer individuals and those who are benefitting do so at the expense of everyone else. My fear is that the survival-of-the-fittest mentality that undergirds our current system will prevail and the current stratified arrangement we have in place today will become even more baked into our economic system than ever.

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