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Viewpoints: California’s workers and consumers will benefit from paid sick days

Maria Elena Jefferson knows what it’s like to drag yourself to work when your body aches. “All I want to do is stay home for a day and recover,” she said, “but I live in fear of asking for any time off.”

At the age of 51, she is raising a daughter and two grandchildren. It’s even harder when the children are sick, but as a part-time worker, she would be docked pay and possibly be fired if she dared stay home with them.

Her employer isn’t some fly-by-night operation. It is, in fact, the largest private employer in the United States, with 1.3 million employees. Jefferson is a sales associate in ladies apparel at the Walmart in Paramount in Los Angeles County.

The state Senate is debating Assembly Bill 1522, which would guarantee that workers like her could earn at least three paid sick days a year. The amount of time is minimal – meager really – but for 6.8 million California workers without a single paid sick day, it would be a huge step forward. The law creates a floor. Employers and local municipalities can, and should, provide more – as San Francisco and San Diego already have.

Wal-Mart management would say the company already offers paid sick days, but they’re only available to full-time workers. Jefferson has tried for full-time work since she started at Wal-Mart more than six years ago. Mostly, she works 32 hours a week. Sometimes, when she bugs her manager enough, she can get an extra two hours. But it’s not enough to get to 36 hours on a consistent basis to be classified as full time.

Even for some full-time workers, paid sick days are mostly a pipe dream. You don’t get paid for the first day you’re sick (that’s true also in other retail chains throughout the state, in part because of the standard set by Wal-Mart). You can get paid for the second day, if your manager agrees.

But the manager may require a doctor’s note. When your child is throwing up, you don’t need a doctor to tell you that she can’t go to day care or school. If you don’t have insurance, you likely can’t afford the doctor’s visit.

And watch out if you’re absent more than three days as a Wal-Mart worker – that can send you into an unpaid leave of absence. Once you return, you may be back to part-time status with no paid sick days.

Jefferson could be the poster child for personal responsibility. In addition to caring for her loved ones here, she is the main financial support for her mother in El Salvador. Like many people, she worries about paying the bills and juggles credit card debt.

She is part of the Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart, a group of current and former employees who are calling for better jobs. Monday, members plan to meet with state legislators about why AB 1522 is sorely needed. Jefferson won’t be able to join them, but says her heart will be there.

Much of the opposition to paid sick days comes from lobbyists who claim it will harm small business owners. They’re hoping legislators – and voters – won’t notice the mega-corporations whose employees are forced to pass on germs as they handle our garments and groceries. The opponents also hope lawmakers will ignore economists who point out the impact on the economy from lost wages, higher turnover and lower productivity that result when workers can’t earn paid sick days.

California legislators would do well to listen to the experts – especially workers like Jefferson. “It’s a horrible feeling to go to work sick,” she says. “But I have to provide for my family and myself.”