Healing Injustice at the Workplace

By Liz Weiss 3-10-2008

Last Tuesday was a great day for low-wage workers in my hometown of Washington, D.C., when the City Council voted to mandate paid sick and safe days for many private-sector workers. The legislation could affect 200,000 District workers who do not currently have the right to a single paid sick day.

In fact, this is an indignity that exists nationwide. Neither the federal government nor any state has granted workers the right to paid sick days. (San Francisco passed a municipal measure in 2006.) As a result, more than 50 million workers in the U.S. must work when they are sick - through colds, fevers, and stomach flus - on pain of lost wages or even lost jobs.

Nearly 100 million workers can't take a day off to care for a family member, such as a sick child or elderly parent. When a worker or a loved one gets sick, she or he must either work anyway or risk losing a day's pay or even her job.

The working poor bear a particularly heavy burden. Less than one-quarter of low-wage workers have paid sick days, although they are the workers who can least afford to lose a day's pay, and whose jobs often require contact with the public or its food supply. (Unfortunately, the D.C. Council passed amendments-at the urging of D.C. businesses and the Chamber of Commerce-that will exempt many of the workers whose employers should actually encourage sick days, including waitstaff and health care workers.)

The injustice and indignity of having to choose between working while ill and losing a day's pay (or your job) is an issue in which many in the faith community have taken a keen interest. Respecting the health and dignity of all human beings is a core value for all faith traditions. This includes not just access to health care, but time away from work to recuperate from illness, as well as to tend to ill family members. Interfaith Worker Justice is working to gather the faith community behind workers and win them the right to paid sick days.

Some 20 national faith groups have already endorsed the Healthy Families Act, federal legislation that would grant seven paid sick days to private-sector workers to care for themselves or their families. These include Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish faith bodies, faith-based organizations, and women's faith groups. And our numbers are growing.

Liz Weiss is a senior policy analyst for Interfaith Worker Justice. For more information, contact her at: lweiss@iwj.org.

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