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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Sick Business

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No less an authority figure than the president of the United States is telling employees who are sick with the flu to stay home from work to protect the public health and head off a possible global pandemic.

 Isn’t it time for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) and some of the richest corporations in our state to admit they were wrong and drop their opposition to an ordinance requiring businesses to provide paid sick leave to employees who get sick?

 Last week Barrett was holding almost daily press conferences surrounded by public health officials advising sick employees to stay home and take other common-sense health precautions as cases of swine flu mounted in the state.

 In the midst of this growing public health crisis, the MMAC will go to court on Monday, May 11, seeking a permanent injunction against a Milwaukee ordinance requiring city businesses to provide some paid sick leave.

 Milwaukee voters passed the ordinance in November with 69% approval in a binding referendum despite strong opposition from the MMAC, the mayor and powerful corporate lobbyists. It was one more bright spot in November’s historic election that ushered in an era of more positive, hopeful politics not only nationally, but on the state and local levels as well.

 The organization for working women, 9to5, led a coalition of community groups in collecting more than 40,000 signatures to get the measure placed on the ballot through direct legislation.

 In other states, such as California recently, direct legislation is often a way for citizen groups to propose mean-spirited, selfish efforts to slash taxes for public schools or deny equal rights or opportunities for racial minorities or gay people.

 In Milwaukee, voters overwhelmingly approved a sick leave ordinance that would primarily benefit people less fortunate than themselves. That is because most of us work for decent employers who provide paid sick leave when we are sick. Employees who do not receive paid sick leave are usually the lowest paid workers who need a paycheck the most.

 Of particular concern to public health, seven out of eight food service workers in the United States do not receive any paid sick leave. All those politicians and public health officials advising employees to stay home last week were asking poor people to give up their pay to protect the rest of us.

 Driven by the Worst

 MMAC opposition to sick leave has always been driven by the worst employers. Most businesses belonging to the MMAC provide sick leave.

 It’s not in the best interest of good employers to have their business association controlled by the other kind. Why should decent employers be put at a competitive disadvantage with businesses with no such standards?

 The truth is the best employers don’t provide basic health benefits, including sick leave, because they are good guys. They do it because it’s good business.

 Employers provide benefits to attract and retain good employees. Businesses that do not provide sick leave have higher absenteeism and turnover. High turnover means higher costs for constant recruiting and training of employees.

 In the food business, which ironically has large numbers of low-wage employees who do not receive any health benefits or sick leave, employees who pass along illnesses to customers can be fatal both to the public and to the business.

 There are once enormously successful restaurant chains that no longer exist in this country because of disastrous publicity about deaths caused by food-borne illnesses.

 In the midst of a flu epidemic, does the MMAC seriously not want restaurants providing sick leave for food workers who are sick? At the very least, restaurants without sick leave should be required to outfit all their employees with face masks.

 We should even require them to decorate employee face masks with their corporate logos and slogans such as “Another Restaurant Opposed to Sick Leave.” See how many customers show up.

 Some corporate members of the MMAC frame their opposition to Milwaukee’s sick pay ordinance as one of political philosophy. Ideologically, they do not believe government should ever tell private businesses what to do.

 If that’s their problem, they need to get a new political philosophy. That tired, old argument was discredited long ago.

 Employers used the same rhetoric to oppose child labor laws, the minimum wage, health and safety standards in the workplace, clean air and water regulations and every other requirement to set minimal standards of decency in business.

 Not all business seems to have heard, but nationally we are finally talking about providing health care for every American. The spreading flu epidemic is a perfect example of why protecting the least among us protects all of us.

 When the MMAC goes to court on Monday to present its case for a permanent injunction against paid sick leave, it should apologize and simply say: “Never mind.”

 Comment on this story at ExpressMilwaukee.com.