Fiona Ma for State Assembly

Paid sick leave best for workers, employers

Here's a number nearly as depressing as the dropout rate or the size of the national debt or the price of diesel: The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that more than 40 percent of the nation's workforce isn't eligible for paid sick leave.

In other words, when they get sick, they either go to work and make their co-workers sick or they stay home and worry about how they're going to pay the rent. It isn't a coincidence that people in low-wage jobs are far more likely to be working without a sick-leave net than people in higher paying jobs.

Fortunately, cities and states across the country are waking up to the issue, albeit slowly. So far, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., are the only jurisdictions mandating paid sick leave. Now, California is one of several states finally considering legislation to bring this bit of labor practice in line with civilized society worldwide.

Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, has introduced a bill that would guarantee employees up to nine days of paid leave annually to care for themselves or a sick relative. The legislation is scheduled to be taken up this week by the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee.

Expect much opposition. Creating such laws has proved to be a remarkably difficult process coast-to-coast because of understandable but ultimately short-sighted resistance from business, particularly champions of small business.

The ultimate argument against paid leave is, of course, that it is expensive — just like it's expensive to provide heat and running water, restrooms, lunch breaks, worker compensation, liability insurance and safety gear. Businesses, especially small businesses, have to pay someone to do the work when someone doesn't show up. There's no getting around that, and the prospect of even one more mandated expense must be frightening to many small businesses, especially in such difficult economic times.

But paid sick leave has won support not only from unions but also from some business leaders who understand that spreading illness around a work place can be more expensive than letting someone take a day or two to recover, and who understand that providing simple benefits can help businesses retain trained employees.

Another argument is that the expense, or what seems to be an expense, could cause some businesses to move out of a city or state that imposes sick leave regulations. The answer to that is to make it a federal requirement.

Would that drive more business out of this country? Probably so. Will they be missed? Yes, but probably not for long.

Don't some employees abuse sick leave? No question. Most work places have people notorious for calling in sick only on Mondays or Fridays. They should be weeded out, not used as leverage to deny basic benefits to others more deserving.

Expenses aside, complications notwithstanding, establishing paid sick leave for all workers, not just those at the high end of the economic ladder, is the right thing to do.