OpEd: Earned sick leave critical for workers, public health

NOTE: This OpEd by Burlington resident and VWC member Johann Kulsic was published in the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and VTDigger.

I am a minimum-wage, part-time worker in Burlington. I am financially independent, and my job is my only source of income and my only way to feed, clothe and house myself. The lack of legally mandated access to earned sick leave in Vermont negatively affects my ability to perform the aforesaid actions while also maintaining my physical health.

Added on to this is the fact that I work in food service, ie, if I work while I am sick, I am endangering the safety of my customers and coworkers. However, in the past, I have had to neglect both my health and that of those around me, so that I could make rent, and so that I could avoid having to eat either Ramen noodles or canned vegetables for the rest of the month.

I’m not the only person that I’ve witnessed being affected by this lack of access to earned sick time, either. I’ve observed many of my coworkers struggling to support themselves and their families while sick or injured.

One of my former coworkers was afflicted with cancer. She was a part-time worker who struggled to support her children and feed herself while also undergoing chemotherapy. Day after day I observed multiple incidents of her working through incredible pain and fatigue, just so that she could make rent and feed her children. She often had to call in sick, because she was unable to get out of bed, or had to go to the hospital for emergency treatment. She complained of not having enough time to raise her children, or even make sure that they were attending school, because she had to fit her work schedule around the schedule of her treatments. She also spoke about how she would often have to choose between feeding her children and feeding herself, or paying rent. She eventually ended up having to leave her children with a relative, and move in with another relative, in another state, for medical treatment. I haven’t heard from her since, and I wish her all the best.

Every day I watch my fellow workers struggle with this same kind of difficulty. Many of them complain of having to work while still infectious, having to work after vomiting in the employee restroom. I watch them come into work, fatigue-ridden, and overdose on caffeine, drinking too much just to stay awake. Some of these coworkers operate heavy machinery; this isn’t safe. But we don’t have a choice. If we don’t work, we will starve. We will freeze. Given the choice between ruining our bodies gradually, or dying of exposure immediately, the only option is to work, regardless of our health/safety.

I understand, however, that I can sling all of the anecdotal evidence at the wall that I want, and still be laughed off as an idealist. Thankfully, the statistics are clear surrounding this issue: 20 percent of all Vermont residents, approximately 60,000 living, breathing individuals, have no form of earned sick leave. Sixty thousand of your fellow workers, of your neighbors, of your friends, are forced to work unsafely. That’s 60,000 of the people who prepare your food and your coffees and interact with you daily. Not all of us are part-timers, either: Many of us have full-time positions that still refuse to provide us with paid sick leave.

A survey found that 80 percent of minimum- and low-wage workers were not provided with any paid sick leave at all. These workers are the most likely to have at-will employment, and to be terminated from their jobs if they even take a normal, unpaid sick day. I know that I, personally, have worked while I was noticeably sick, because I was afraid that if I called out, I would be terminated from my position. When faced with these facts, the solution is obvious: something has to change.

Fortunately for all Vermont residents, our years of community organizing and testimonies about this issue have caused Vermont legislators to discuss a bill that would mandate employers provide their employees with access to earned sick leave. However, the fight is not yet won, as this bill is struggling to pass through the many layers of checks and balances that any bill must pass through before it is signed into law. It is up to us, the people of Vermont, to remind our representatives that we care about this issue, as it directly affects our health and safety. If you agree with my position on this, if you care about curbing the spread of infectious illnesses, and if you care about your fellow workers, please contact your representative and urge them to pass this bill.