Over the weekend, Connecticut became the first state in the country to mandate paid sick days for service employees. Their House of Representatives passed a bill, which will provide about 600,000 employees in the state with one hour of paid sick leave for every 40 hours worked, starting next year. Employees can take up to five paid sick days a year to recover from an illness, to care for family members who are ill, or to seek services for domestic violence or sexual assault.

“The victory for paid sick days in Connecticut shows that there is growing public and policy-maker support for policies that protect the health of workers and their families, and reflect today’s economic realities,” said Linda Meric, executive director of 9to5, a national grassroots organization that campaigns for working women’s issues. “In our country, no one should have to risk their job or their paycheck to take care of their health or a sick family member, and yet that is far too often the case.”

Over forty million workers nationwide, about forty percent of the country’s workforce, lack access to a single paid sick day. 

The issue disproportionately affects low income workers and workers of color. The National Partnership for Women and Families found that twelve million Latino workers, or sixty percent of the Latino workforce, don’t have access to any paid sick leave. Over half of African American workers also lack such access

Not being able to take paid leave from work to address health needs compounds other risks faced by low income individuals, families, and communities. In addition to a restricted ability to take preventative health measures and lower overall health outcomes, those without access to paid sick leave are more likely to need to turn to costly visits to the emergency room when their conditions worsen. Last year, in an investigative report for Colorlines, Seth Freed Wessler profiled Eva Hernández, a low-wage worker in Connecticut who lost her job after missing a morning of work to rush her sick daughter to the hospital, and thus immediately faced the possibility of homelessness – all because her job did not offer any paid sick leave.

Eighty percent of low-wage workers do not have any paid sick days, many of which are in food service and preparation jobs, childcare, other care-giving professions, and a whole host of occupations that require a lot of interaction with the public. According to Human Impact Partners, a national policy organization, eighty five percent of restaurant workers do not have paid sick days, which poses a public health concern when those individuals are forced to come in to work when they are ill. Meanwhile, only fifteen percent of management positions in restaurants don’t offer paid sick days.

Paid sick day bills have been introduced several times before in Connecticut.  But this year, a major grassroots push by a broad based coalition of women’s organizations, family and public health advocates, doctors, labor unions and other community organizations, as well as support from a newly elected governor who indeed made paid sick leave one of his campaign issues, resulted in the bill finally being passed by both chambers. 

Paid sick days were previously mandated in San Francisco and Washington D.C., and there are campaigns nationwide to do the same in other parts of the country. Advocates have their eyes on major efforts in Philadelphia, Seattle, Denver, New York City, Milwaukee, Massachusetts and California as places where we might see similar measures passed within the next year. 

Recent research on outcomes in San Francisco found that employers there generally supported the ordinance, and that it did not adversely affect profit or productivity for businesses in the city. Those findings refuted caricatures by businesses lobbying in opposition of the bills as job killers. The federal version of a paid sick time bill, the Healthy Families Act, was reintroduced to the Senate last month, and was first championed by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy in 2007.

“It’s certainly something we’re very proud of as an organization and proud for our state to lead the way particularly at a time when protections for working families and for the public in general are sort of under attack,” said Jon Green of the Connecticut Working Families Party. “We think that passing this legislation, which is both about public health but also I think about common sense and common decency, is an important victory, one that we think and hope other municipalities and states will follow.”