Bill Buckmaster
Local news host Bill Buckmaster noted on Facebook that everyone has the “Tucson Cold.” This is a sign that too many people are going to work and/or to school sick.

Tucson City Councilwoman Regina Romero is leading the charge to require local businesses to provide paid sick leave for employees.

As someone who has been in management for more than 20 years, I fully support paid sick leave and the city’s proposed ordinance. At first glance, paid sick leave appears to be an expense that businesses don’t want or need, but in reality, requiring employees to come in sick is far more costly in the long run because it hurts productivity, diminishes customer services, and spreads disease in the community..

Many years ago, I ran a large program at the University of Arizona with 40 employees and a $1.5 million budget, at its peak. At the UA, coming in sick was seen as some sort of martyrdom to be celebrated. “Oh, look, she is so dedicated that she came in sick.” Hogwash. Coming to work sick should be discouraged, not celebrated or required.

Although we had paid sick leave, many people came to work sick– even at the Arizona Health Sciences Center. My program included the Arizona Smokers’ Helpline. I employed a dozen or so full- and part-time employees to staff the Helpline from 7 a.m. – 9 p.m. (back in the day when the tobacco tax was used to help people quit smoking). The shifts were staggered because of the extended hours; consequently, some people shared workstations, telephones, and computers. When one Helpline counselor came in sick, the disease spread like wildfire through the counseling staff– despite separate telephone headsets for everyone and efforts to disinfect workstations in between shifts. There were times when call wait times were higher than normal or when Helpline managers had to take calls because so many counselors were sick simultaneously.

Very quickly, I established a policy against coming to work sick. I had structured my budget to allow full benefits including paid sick time for full- and part-time people; so, people were not going to lose income if they stayed home. When people came in sick, I sent them home. The change in attendance was dramatic and immediately obvious. Giving my employees “permission” to take care of themselves or a sick child resulted in fewer people calling in sick because I had stopped the waves of colds and flu from spreading through the whole employee group.

Fast forward from 1998 to 2016, and we find many Tucsonans working multiple part-time jobs in the “gig” economy. I have a friend who is a laid-off technology teacher. She is working three part-time jobs including one at a convenience store and one working with small children. Just think of how many hundreds of people this woman could infect if she went to work sick (and given her situation, she probably has to go to work sick).

Yesterday, I was at a local spa/salon for an appointment. It was noon on a weekday, and the parking lot was packed. Inside, the place was hopping with dozens of people (mostly women) cutting hair, coloring hair, giving manicures and pedicures, and providing other salon services. I was there yesterday because my salon technician called in sick with the “Tucson Cold” a few weeks earlier. During that time frame, I came down with my second round of the “Tucson Cold”, and by yesterday, we were both on the upswing but still a bit congested. As a technician working for a salon that charges top dollar, she works only three days a week, receives no paid sick time or vacation time, and God only knows what percentage of her pay is tips. She is a hard working single Mom who is supporting herself and her child with multiple jobs, while trying to finish her bachelors degree. She apologized to me for missing the appointment. I said it was no big deal to me and that I believe in people taking care of themselves and staying home when they’re sick. (After all, I have a Masters in Public Health.) I told her that I used to send my employees home, and then realized that she was different from my employees because she didn’t have paid sick leave and because her employer discourages her and the others from calling in sick. Again– look at how many people these salon workers are infecting when they come in sick. “Patient Zero” at the salon may have been a sick customer, but forcing employees who are “up close and personal” with their patrons to come in sick spreads disease and decreases productivity and customer service.

fast food baby-web
A fast food worker at a Fight for $15 rally with her baby.

At a recent Jobs with Justice event, there was a touching presentation by a fast food worker who is part of the Fight for $15 movement. She was a Mom in her mid-thirties who is supporting her children and her disabled husband. She makes under $8/hour and receives no paid sick leave. When she gets a “raise”, it’s only a penny or two per hour. As with the convenience store worker or the salon technician who go to work sick, just think how many people sick fast food workers are infecting every day. It’s no wonder that local radio talk show host Bill Buckmaster mused on Facebook that everyone in town has had or currently has the “Tucson Cold”

We have known about germ theory and paths of infection for decades. It’s time that the business community recognized the science behind sickness.  Making people come to work sick isn’t profitable. In fact, I’d say it’s bad for business and bad for our community. The city’s proposal is modest, and I support it because it’s common sense, based in science.

Here is the city’s proposal from the Star:

  • Businesses would be required to give workers one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked.
  • Employees could begin to use earned sick time after 90 days of employment and could use up to 40 hours a year at a small business — one with fewer than 10 employees — or up to 56 hours per year at a larger businesses.
  • Businesses would not be allowed to require workers to find someone to cover their shifts while using sick time.
  • Complaints would be filed with the city’s Office of Equal Opportunity Programs. Employers who don’t follow the rules could be fined.

In the coming weeks, there will be a series of public meetings on this issue. If you want to voice your opinion on paid sick leave, go to one of these hearings or send a comment to the email address below.

• 6-7:30 p.m. Jan. 13 at the Ward 5 Office, 4300 S. Park Ave.

• 6-7:30 p.m. Jan. 21 at the Ward 6 Office, 3202 E. First St.

• 6-7:30 p.m. Jan. 28 at the Ward 2 Office, 7575 E. Speedway

• Comment by email to Use “Earned Sick and Safe Time” in the subject line.

UPDATE: Watch the Call to Audience from the City Council Meeting here. My testimony is around the 30 minute mark.