WHY PAID SICK DAYS IS A SOUND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT MEASURE
As academic researchers on economic development and workplace productivity, we urge Milwaukeeans to vote YES on the city’s sick leave referendum.
Milwaukee has the seventh highest poverty rate in the nation, a 51% African American male jobless rate and the largest racial disparities in unemployment and poverty in the country. 43% of the city’s workers earn less than $20,000 a year and many are among the 122,230 Milwaukeeans (47% of the private workforce) who do not have paid sick days.
In this economic context, everyone agrees that Milwaukee needs more family-supporting jobs. Yet, employment that lacks paid sick days forces employees to choose between their jobs and caring for their families. A job that does not provide employees with paid sick days so they can care for their families is not a family-supporting job.
The lack of paid sick days hampers economic development in Milwaukee in myriad ways:
• It costs workers job stability, as employees who become too ill to work or who take off to care for a sick child or parent are frequently fired;
• It costs companies in workplace stability and productivity, in turnover, training, and absenteeism, and health care expenses;
• It contributes to Milwaukee’s high rates of student absenteeism as older siblings stay home to care for their sick younger brothers and sisters because their parents are denied that right;
• It creates public health obstacles to workplace productivity, forcing sick employees with contagious diseases to work.
Opponents say mandatory paid sick days are a worthy objective but not economically viable. Some have even invoked the possibility of recession as a reason to oppose improving our city’s workplaces.
But these opponents simply offer the same discredited methodology and arguments that backward employers and their academic apologists have used throughout history in opposing child labor laws, the minimum wage, workers compensation, clean air and water regulations and virtually every other labor standard this nation has adopted. In every case the opposition characterized the new labor or community standard as a job killer. And in every case, after the standard was established, the business community adapted, the economy grew and our country, its workers and their families were better for it.
In the 1990’s business lobbyists used the very same arguments now being used against paid sick days to oppose raising the minimum wage. But after states and even cities raised their wages above the national minimum, economists found that the chicken little scenarios of the opponents did not occur: that incremental increases in the minimum wage did not increase unemployment or cause minimum wage paying firms to lay people off.
Facing similar dire warnings, San Francisco enacted a paid sick leave ordinance in 2007. However, despite an economic downturn affecting all counties in the Bay Area, San Francisco maintained a competitive job growth rate that exceeded the average rate of nearby counties.
Internationally, of the twenty most competitive economies, only the United States does not guarantee its workers paid sick leave.
Economies and firms can try to compete on price and cost. But in world where two billion people live on less than two dollars a day, Milwaukee will not succeed by trying to get poor. The only way Milwaukee can thrive is by getting smart- competing with high skill, high productivity, high-wage employees.
Indeed, opponents of the sick leave referendum, such as the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) point out that many of their members already provide paid sick leave. These MMAC members should welcome higher standards for all employers, which would protect them against unfair competition from businesses without standards, and would prevent a destructive race to the bottom in workplace standards.
Providing all Milwaukee workers with paid sick leave is the right thing to do. It is also the smart thing to do because firms that treat their employees humanely benefit from increased commitment, inventiveness and productivity, the keys to competing in an increasingly competitive global economy.
We urge the citizens of Milwaukee to VOTE YES on the sick day referendum.
Zohreh Emami, PhD, Professor of Economics, Alverno College
Marc Levine, PhD, Professor of Urban Studies, UWM Center for Economic Development
Michael Rosen, PhD, Economics Instructor, Milwaukee Area Technical College