Marion Johnson, Think NC First Policy Analyst

This column originally appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer

As we move from autumn to winter, flu season is starting to pick up steam. Some of us have forgotten to get flu shots or will just get unlucky and catch this year’s bug. The CDC recommends that we “stay home from work or school to prevent spreading flu to others,” which just seems like common sense.

But for a large number of North Carolinians, staying home sick isn’t a viable option. A new report from Think NC First highlights the difficulties workers face without paid leave. Thirty-nine percent of North Carolina’s private sector workers lack paid sick days. That’s 1.2 million North Carolinians who can’t call in sick without losing pay – or their job. Paid sick days are concentrated in high-paying white-collar jobs, meaning the less money you make, the less likely you are to have paid sick days.

If you literally can’t afford to miss a day of work, you’re much more likely to bring your illness into your workplace with you – or worse, send it into your child’s school. The thing is, paid sick days aren’t just about the workplace. Over two-thirds of North Carolina children under the age of 6 – prime “getting sick” years – live in homes where all available parents work. Not all of those parents can be home when their kids get sick. The average toddler gets sick between five and 10 times a year. As incomes keep trending down in North Carolina, far fewer working parents can afford to miss five to 10 workdays without pay.

The vast majority of Southern workers also lack paid family and medical leave. Unfortunately, that number doesn’t match the number of workers who will need that leave to care for a newborn or a family member suffering from a chronic illness.

In North Carolina alone, over one million people care for adult family members, partners or friends suffering from chronic illness. The majority of caregivers have been employed at some point during their caregiving experience. Without paid family leave, those family members have to choose between foregoing a paycheck to fulfill their caregiving needs and spending less time providing care for their family members.

The lack of paid leave access doesn’t affect all workers in the same degree. But it does cause three kinds of problems for North Carolina workers and their employers. It puts an undue economic burden on low-wage working families. It leaves communities vulnerable to public health issues – like an annual flu season. And it weakens the workplace through lost productivity and high turnover.

Other states have moved to address these problems. Connecticut, Massachusetts and Oregon all have paid sick days. New Jersey and Rhode Island have paid family and medical leave. California has both. Despite resistance from the business community at the outset, data and personal accounts show that paid leave absolutely pays off, for both employers and employees.

For business owners, they see lower turnover (and lower turnover costs), higher productivity, and fewer occupational injuries. For workers, it means having the time to bond with and care for a new child or going to the doctor instead of delaying, without worrying about a missed paycheck.

The recent shift in state economic policy has hurt North Carolina workers and families. Changes to the tax code, like eliminating the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child and Dependent Care Credit, effectively raised taxes on low- and middle-income families. Cuts to unemployment benefits have targeted those hurt most by swiftly changing economic trends. On top of that, the state legislature eliminated the family hardship provision of the unemployment law, meaning workers who were forced to leave work to care for a sick family member are no longer eligible to receive unemployment benefits.

While state policy has negatively impacted workers, the state’s economic growth isn’t being shared equitably. Nearly six in 10 of the new jobs North Carolina has created since the recession pay poverty-level wages. Median household income has fallen since 2007, bringing North Carolina down to 41st in the nation. Working families are under siege.

Passing paid sick days and paid family leave legislation in North Carolina would relieve economic stress on working families, help defend communities against public health issues and strengthen workplaces. It would also signal to workers and job creators that North Carolina is a good place to work and do business, thus giving North Carolina a competitive advantage over neighboring states. Not only does it make economic sense – it’s also the right thing to do.