Sick days for all

A waitress carries an omelette

MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: The Real Agenda is our special series on pocketbook issues that could influence this year's mid-term elections. Today we look at paid sick leave. Almost half of all full-time private sector employees have no paid sick days. That's especially true for low-wage workers. According to the polls, most Americans think workers deserve some paid medical leave. And now San Franciscans are expected to make that city the first in the country to require paid sick leave. Rachel Dornhelm reports.


RACHEL DORNHELM: Slicing and dicing happens every night in the kitchens of Italian restaurants in San Francisco's touristy North Beach neighborhood.

For seven years, Leonardo Prado has worked in a number of these spots as a busboy, server or manager. But like 86 percent of the nation's restaurant employees he has never had paid sick leave.

LEONARDO PRADO: Every day that I work, I need that money so taking one day off, forget it. It will have an impact on my budget, even taking one day off.

The single father says the worst is when his 4-year-old gets sick and he has to pay more for child care than he earns at his job.

Single mother Beatrice Mai, a waitress in a Chinese restaurant, is also afraid to take days off.

BEATRICE MAI [translated]: I'm constantly fearful that if I take time off because I'm sick, my boss will cut my schedule.

More than 100,000 employees like Mai and Prado will get paid sick leave in San Francisco if Proposition F passes.

The referendum requires that full- and part-time workers earn one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours of work. The leave tops out at 9 days.

Proponents say it will reduce contagious disease and considerably lower the city's hospital bill. While the program could cost city businesses $33.5 million, advocates say it could save them over $40 million in increased productivity.

DAN SCHEROTTER: Only people who have never run a business would say something like that.

Dan Scherotter is vice president of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association.

SCHEROTTER: I always love that argument it's going to increase productivity by incenting people to take 9 days off a year paid.

Scherotter says this proposition will hit the restaurant industry much harder than other small businesses because labor is a such a big part of its costs. Still, the restaurant association isn't launching a counter-attack.

SCHEROTTER: It polls too high. I mean if you ask people would you like more sick pay, everybody is going to say yes. And to be honest, if we fight it, we look like complete jerks.

Proponents see the potential for this catching on nationwide. They point to 1993 federal Family and Medical Leave Act which mandates unpaid leave for family and medical emergencies.

Debra Ness, President of the National Partnership for Women and Families, says worker and family topics are perfect bipartisan issues.

DEBRA NESS: The Family and Medical Leave Act was one of the most popular laws that we've passed in the last couple of decades but there hasn't been very much building on that since. The initiative in San Francisco is a wonderful step in that direction.

A number of states from Montana to Massachusetts are expected to consider mandatory paid sick days in the coming year.

In San Francisco, I'm Rachel Dornhelm for Marketplace.

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