Denver Paid Sick Days Initiative: Are the costs too high to offer paid sick days to all employees?

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Yesterday, Campaign for a Healthy Denver launched what it's calling the 2011 Denver Paid Sick Days Initiative, which would mandate paid sick days for all non-governmental workers in Denver, be they full-time or part-time employees. But given the state of the economy, isn't this a terrible time to introduce such a measure? Hardly, says one backer.

"The economy is actually one of the reasons why it's the right time to be doing this," argues Erin Bennett, Colorado director of 9to5, the National Association of Working Women, who spoke at a 16th Street Mall rally that launched the initiative drive. "We know working families have been especially hurt by the economy. To worry about losing a day's pay or not being able to make a month's rent just because you're sick is something working families can't afford."

What about businesses already griping about additional financial obligations from federal health-care regulations?

"We have a number of business owners in our coalition," Bennett points out. "Yes, there is some administrative cost, and there's the cost of offering sick days for employees. But the benefits of not having sick workers on the job, of increased work-force productivity and decreased turnover from not having to replace employees far outweighs the cost. Any business owner who offers sick days will tell you that."

Such folks represent the majority here, but barely. The campaign estimates that nearly 40 percent of Denverites receive no paid sick days, and that number skyrockets for toilers in the restaurant industry. Approximately 72 percent of such workers in Denver don't get paid sick days, according to the campaign -- a little better than the national average of 80 percent, but still problematic considering the incentive for people handling food to punch the clock whether they're sick or not.

Not that Bennett expects every business organization to get behind the campaign's proposal. But she believes "most of the business organizations that oppose paid sick days are the ones that oppose any mandates on business whatsoever" -- and they can be won over by positive experiences. She references San Francisco, "where the policy has been in place the longest," she allows. "The restaurant association there was opposed to the initiative as it was moving forward, but since then, they've come out and said it wasn't a big deal -- that it wasn't hard to implement and it was good for public health and business."

The campaign portrays the initiative as quite modest. Paid sick leave would be capped at nine days per year for full-time workers and pro-rated for part-timers -- and businesses with fewer than ten employees would only have to offer five days of paid sick leave for full-time employees.

Bennett and her crew still have to go through the petition-gathering process in order to place the initiative on the ballot. But she's confident voters will back it. In San Francisco, the paid-sick-leave measure garnered 61 percent support, while a similar initiative passed in Milwaukee with 69 percent of the vote -- and that makes sense to Bennett. "In the long run," she says, "people realize this clearly pays off."

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