CHICAGO (WOMENSENEWS)–Illinois lawmakers have introduced the Healthy Workplace Act, a bill that would allow workers to accrue up to seven paid sick days a year.

Women need laws like this.

Women still bear the brunt of caretaking responsibilities, and it is largely women who go without paid sick-days benefits. Female-dominated industries, including childcare and food service, are among the least likely to offer paid sick days, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families. Nearly three-quarters of workers in those two industries don’t enjoy paid sick time. In fact, half of all working mothers, and two-thirds of low-income working mothers, report that they do not get paid when they take a day off to care for a sick child.

Opponents argue that legislating paid sick days would be a job killer, driving up payroll expenses, and bankrupting small businesses. They argue that if all workers had paid sick days, they would abuse the privilege, costing employers valuable dollars in a tough economy.

The evidence doesn’t back this claim.

San Francisco was the first city to mandate paid sick days for their workers. The law went into effect in 2007. Four years later, in a survey of 727 employers, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that 6 out of 7 employers report no impact in profitability. While business opposition was strong before the law went into effect, two-thirds of employers now support the law.

The study also found that parents who have paid sick days were 20 percent less likely to send a sick child to school, reducing the risk of an outbreak of disease. These workers are also much more likely to stay home when they are sick, ensuring that they won’t cough on your food, blow their noses and then ring up your groceries, or take care of your elderly relatives when they have the flu. Paid sick days are a win-win for everyone.

Some people don’t think twice about staying home when they’re sick or leaving work when the school nurse calls about a sick child.

They get annoyed when the guy in the cubicle next to them comes to work with a nasty cough.

They’re disgusted when their waiter at a restaurant sneezes while bringing their food.

If someone’s sick, they should stay home so they’re not spreading germs, right?

But what would the complainers do if taking a sick day meant losing a day’s pay, risking a demerit at work or even losing their jobs?

Prepping Food with a Bad Flu

This is the dilemma of many a single mother making minimum wage, scraping every last penny just to pay her bills. If she stays home sick she might not be able to make rent that month or put enough food on the table. Going to her food-prep job with a bad flu seems like her only rational choice.

Forty two million private sector workers – roughly 42 percent of private-sector workers– do not get paid sick days.

The situation is particularly bad for low-wage workers. Only one quarter of these workers have paid sick days.

In the top earnings quartile, by contrast, 81 percent enjoy this benefit.

The majority of workers in the lowest-paid jobs are in food service, retail, and other service professions where they come into contact with the public on a daily basis. When these workers get sick, they either go to work (a major risk to public health) or suffer the financial consequences, which can be devastating for a family who can barely make ends meet.

Tina Jackson, a single mom, knows what a strain it can be when someone gets sick.

"I’m a healthcare worker, and I’m always on duty," says Jackson. "My son got sick with the flu, so for three days I was home with him with no healthcare, no sick days, no vacation days, because that doesn’t come with the job. So that was three days of pay that I lost. With everything focused on making sure we still have a place to stay and that bills are paid, that three days really hit home hard."

A worker such as Jackson, earning the federal minimum wage and working 40 hours a week, earns just under $300 a week before taxes. If she has to miss three days of work, that is $174 in lost wages. That leaves $126 to cover that week’s expenses, an impossibility for most.

Meet Toni Park, a restaurant worker and single mom of four kids. "When I get sick, I have to either go to work or lose wages. I have a daughter who got a very strange illness, and I had to miss two months of work, so that meant two months without any pay at all, and that really affected my family adversely."

Stories such as Jackson’s and Park’s are extremely common, but they don’t have to be. Several cities across the nation, including San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Seattle, have passed ordinances requiring employers to provide paid sick days to their workers.

Connecticut is the first state to have a law on paid sick days.

Other states must follow quickly. We should all have the opportunity to stay home when we’re sick and prevent the spread of the illness.

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Melissa Josephs is director of equal opportunity policy at Women Employed, which leads the Illinois Paid Leave Coalition.