Sick days coming for federal contract workers?


For federal contract workers earning minimum wage who are concerned about taking time off when they get sick, a bipartisan solution may be on its way.

During a recent Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing, legislators heard from single mom Kimberly Ortiz. For five years, she worked at the Statue of Liberty earning less than $10 an hour while coping with no pay and disciplinary action whenever she took time off to care for her ill son – even in instances when she provided a doctor note.

“I am more than willing to work hard,” Ortiz said in her testimony (.pdf file). “I want to work full time, and I should be paid a living wage, and have a few paid sick days for myself or my sons – so I won’t have to borrow money for food and diapers when I take a day off to take my son to the ER.”

One solution being considered by the committee would be the Healthy Families Act (S. 984), which would require employers to provide at least seven days of paid sick time to workers.

Paid sick days are necessary as they provide reprieve for low-wage workers who can’t otherwise afford to take time off from work when they or their dependents are ill. Many workers in this situation are forced to come into work sick – affecting the health of other workers and productivity – or go a day or more without pay.

Ranking committee member Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) said he worries a federal mandate on paid sick time would place a financial burden on small businesses, but he likewise expressed dismay that Ortiz suffered while working for a contractor at a national park.

“I think we’re all upset with Ms. Ortiz’s situation,” he said. “How are we letting a federal contractor get away with this?”

Enzi suggested that instead of imposing a paid sick-time regulation on employers throughout the country without fully knowing what the results may be, Congress should first impose the requirement on federal contractors.

“I like that,” former comedian Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) interjected, prompting slight laughter throughout the chamber.

At the end of the hearing, committee chair and Healthy Families Act sponsor Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) offered federal contract employees a bit of hope that went beyond some chuckling.

“Ms. Ortiz, I might say you may have sparked a possible bipartisan piece of legislation,” he said to a round of applause. “This may actually move ahead.”

The opinions expressed in "Washington Wire" do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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