How Red States Are Making You Sick

GOP insistence on standing between workers and paid sick days is making us all ill.

By + More
Young woman sneezes to the side while working from home on a laptop.

One of the supposedly central tenets of Republican ideology is that local control trumps nearly everything. Education: Leave it at the local level. Transportation policy: Ditto. "Our Founding Fathers devised a system of government unique in all the world – a federation of sovereign states, with as much law and decision-making authority as possible kept at the local level," said modern conservatism's patron saint, President Ronald Reagan.

But in the last few years, a bunch of Republican states have ditched that philosophy in order to prevent cities from granting paid sick days to workers, instead favoring mandates that legally bar those cities – or any local government – from enacting the labor laws they desire. And a new study says that's a terrible idea for public health.

First, some background: The U.S. is the only developed country that doesn't require some form of paid leave that workers can use when they or their family members are sick. To make up for this gross oversight, several cities, including Washington, D.C., Seattle and San Francisco, as well as the state of Connecticut, have passed paid sick day requirements of their own. New York City is poised to become the latest to join the club.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

In 2011, Milwaukee adopted a paid sick day law too. However, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a law not only voiding Milwaukee's initiative, but saying that no Wisconsin city would ever be allowed to adopt a paid sick days mandate.  A handful of other Republican states, including Mississippi and Kansas, have passed similar bans.

The latest state on the bandwagon is Florida, where Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill Friday overriding any local sick day initiatives. The Michigan state senate recently passed a ban on local paid sick day laws as well, even though no Michigan city has approved one. 

A new study from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health shows the folly of this approach. Researchers found that providing universal paid sick days cuts down significantly on the spread of disease. Just two "flu days," for instance, reduces the spread of workplace influenza infections by nearly 40 percent. Just one flu day reduces infections by 25 percent.

[See a collection of political cartoons on health care.]

"Our simulations show that allowing all workers access to paid sick days would reduce illness because fewer workers get the flu over the course of the season if employees are able to stay home and keep the virus from being transmitted to their coworkers," lead author Supriya Kumar told Science Daily. This jives with other findings, including one study from the Institute for Women's Policy Research showing that there would have been about seven million fewer cases of H1N1 flu – swine flu – in 2009 if workers had had paid sick days.

But paid sick days aren't only good for public health. Both San Francisco and Connecticut have shown that these requirements are compatible with job creation and small business growth, contrary to the carping of the GOP and business lobbyists. And this makes sense, as paid sick days help prevent lost productivity due to workers coming to the job and spreading illnesses around; they also reduce costly turnover.

In fairness, Democrats at the national level have not done a bang-up job on this issue. The Healthy Families Act – which would set a national paid sick days standard – has been languishing in Congress for years without seeing the light of day, even when Democrats controlled both chambers. But by failing to pass a national paid sick days law, Democrats were just being feckless and incompetent; by preempting local cities that want their own laws, Republicans are betraying what is supposedly a core part of their ideology.

  • Read Robert Schlesinger: Poll: Voters Want Results From Congress, Not Just Effort
  • Read Robert Schlesinger: Obama Praised for Leading From Behind on Immigration and Tax reform
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad