Fiona Ma for State Assembly
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Herdt: Ray of hope for workers?

The Fair Labor Standards Act, passed 70 years ago, embodies all the humane workplace standards by which civilized societies abide: a ban on child labor, the 40-hour workweek, minimum wage, overtime pay.

But those fundamental worker rights do not include one that most Californians believe ought to be among them. Nothing in the law says that if you're up all night vomiting Tuesday and stay home in bed Wednesday, you'll still have your job Thursday — let alone get paid wages for the day you missed.

The Legislature is on the verge of expanding the rights of workers by guaranteeing the right of paid sick time, a bill that would make California the first in the nation to mandate that right.

Supporters of the bill Tuesday released the results of a poll conducted by the respected Field Research Corp. It showed lopsided results the likes of which are seldom seen in today's polarized politics. By a 3-to-1 margin (73 percent to 23 percent) California voters support the idea of a state law.

White people like the idea, Latinos like it, young voters like it, senior citizens like it. Republicans, Democrats, independents, men, women, rich folk, poor folk — everybody likes it.

Voters like it even when told the argument that paid sick days would increase costs of doing business and that some businesses would likely respond by cutting back hours or laying off some workers.

Strikingly, 76 percent agree that "paid sick days is a basic worker right, just like being paid a decent wage."

The fact is, an estimated 5.4 million California workers cannot call in sick without losing a day's pay or risking their jobs. That's about 40 percent of the work force.

It was a different world back in 1938, when President Roosevelt was signing those sweeping workplace regulations. Sick pay wasn't much of an issue then. The great majority of households had two parents; dad went to work and mom stayed home. If a child had the stomach flu, there was already a full-time day-care provider in the house.

Today, if a child shows up at a day-care center with a hint of green mucus leaking from his nose, the provider will send him directly home — and properly so.

The poll comes on the heels of a study released last week by the group Human Impact Partners that detailed the public health benefits such a law would have.

More than a third of flu cases are transmitted in schools and workplaces. The organization calculated that if people stayed home when they had the flu, it would reduce by as much as 34 percent the number of people infected by a flu pandemic.

Furthermore, the study noted 70 percent of food service workers in the state do not have paid sick days — a fact of life that substantially increases the risk foodborne diseases will be spread in restaurants.

The underlying issue, beyond the polls and studies, is what used to be known as the social contract — something Assemblyman Sandré Swanson, D-Oakland, described as "that very important social and economic partnership that's supposed to exist between employers and workers."

That kind of thinking, California Labor Federation lobbyist Angie Wei told me Tuesday, has become almost quaint in the 21st century American economy.

"We no longer have a social contract that says if you work hard every day you get taken care of," she said.

The bill, AB2716 by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, may be the most groundbreaking piece of legislation to emerge from Sacramento in 2008.

It is vigorously opposed by employer groups, including the California Chamber of Commerce, which has placed the bill on its annual "job killer" list — a list that in the past Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has paid close attention to.

The opposition is understandable; the change would be a radical shift in the status quo, opening uncertain questions about costs and scheduling.

To date, Schwarzenegger has not closed the door on the idea.

Given his close relationship with the business community and his free-market instincts, it would be a difficult bill for him to sign. It may the kind of issue that has to build some momentum over time.

Still, there won't be much encouraging news for working people to come from Sacramento in this year of out-of-control gas prices, record mortgage foreclosures and grocery bills that keep on climbing. Maybe this bill could be one hopeful message to working people that their lot will get better.

"During these tough times," Wei said, "we need to get these rays of hope."