A new public opinion poll shows that 82.2 percent of likely voters in Rhode Island support earned sick days and want to see a statewide policy enacted. The poll, commissioned by Rhode Island Working Families and conducted by Blue Sun Campaigns, found that the policy had wide support among both Democrats (89.5 percent) and Republicans (68.8 percent). Women were particularly supportive of the legislation, with 90.1 percent in favor. The poll also shows that the issue is a priority for a majority of voters, with 61.5 percent saying they would be more likely to support a legislator’s re-election bid if they had voted for the policy.
“Rhode Islanders overwhelmingly support the right of workers to earn sick day, even after the pollsters tested different arguments against it,” said Georgia Hollister Isman, director of Rhode Island Working Families Party. “They understand that this policy benefits everyone by protecting public health and the economic security of families.”
The Rhode Island House Committee on Labor heard testimony on the policy that would provide every worker in the state with the ability to earn paid sick days from work. Currently, over 169,100 employees in the state do not have access to a single day of paid sick time off. The Healthy and Safe Families and Workplaces Act would allow workers to earn up to 56 hours (seven days) of paid sick and safe leave to care for themselves and their families, and to address domestic violence.
Workers moved beyond the numbers to speak about the real impact a statewide earned sick day policy would have on their lives. Sara Braganca won her battle with cancer in 2016, but continues to need to make doctor appointments to monitor her health. Today she works at Interview Connections, a podcast guest booking company based in Warwick, where she can earn sick time. “With the type of cancer I had, survival rates for those who go into remission are very low – about 20 percent. That’s why it’s critical that I get scans and tests done on time to make sure that if my cancer comes back, they catch it early. Sick time policy has allowed me to continue to be successful in my work while pursuing the treatment schedule that my life quite literally depends on. Without this policy, I can’t imagine how people are able to do both. I certainly could not.”
When Sara was first looking to re-enter the workforce after her recovery from cancer, she found that her continued treatment created a barrier to employment. “After putting my life on pause for almost an entire year in order to receive life saving treatment, that was so intense that I couldn’t even get out of bed on some days, it was incredibly disheartening to feel like I couldn’t get my own life back when I was finally feeling like myself again.”
For Bryan Rinebolt, the owner of Hudson Street Deli in Providence, supporting the bill made sense as a policy that would help both his business and the employees, and be easy to put in place. “I simply called my payroll company and asked how I could implement the policy expansion this legislation would bring. They said it would take them a minute to update my settings to record my employee’s sick time. I don’t know where the idea that this is burdensome to implement comes from. I don’t want my employees to come in sick when they are handling food, and I know my customers don’t want that, either.” Rineholt, who has about a dozen employees, recently updated his policy to expand his employees’ earned sick days from two to seven days per year.
Nationally, 40 jurisdictions across the country, including Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New York City, and Pittsburgh have policies similar to the one Rhode Island is considering. Sherry Leiwant, co-president of A Better Balance, has studied the outcomes from earned sick day policies implemented around the country “As we’ve seen in the other 40 jurisdictions that have passed similar laws, this policy is a win for employers, employees, and for the public health.”
“As with every workplace reform in this nation, opponents warned the sky would fall,” said Rachel Flum, Executive Director of the Economic Progress Institute. “What we learn from these 40 economies is that they were wrong. As a member of a national network hosted by Family Values at Work, we know that in fact, these laws are achieving their intended results: workers able to put food on the table as they recover from an illness, siblings who no longer need to skip school to stay home with younger ones, higher job retention, lower use of emergency rooms. We are committed to working with our local network of businesses, workers and concerned citizens to enact earned sick-time so these benefits can be realized here in Rhode Island.”
Casey Sardo has worked in healthcare and food service without access to earned sick days throughout her career. Her experiences illuminated how the lack of this workplace benefit can cross into a public health concern. “Working in the hospital, I see dozens of patients a day and share a space with hundreds more. During college, I worked as a waitress to pay my tuition. There, I was interacting constantly with customers and handling their food. Because my finances depend on it, I’ve always shown up to work unless I was physically unable. It really shouldn’t be like that.” Casey recalled catching a stomach virus one winter but reporting to work in the restaurant regardless. “It was obvious that I wasn’t feeling well and should not have been around food. My manager saw me but didn’t seem to care. This struck me as not only disrespectful to the staff and customers, but also like bad business. I cannot understand how people don’t see the real public health problem created by bringing sick employees into crowded work spaces.” Eventually, Casey had to take unpaid sick time. She had to take out a loan to cover her missed wages.