Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

A big fish tale: Paid sick days opponents rely on misleading data and scare tactics

fishingDoes anyone else have that uncle who comes home from a fishing trip and tells the story of the one that got away? It’s always the biggest fish you’ve never seen, and it only gets bigger every time he tells the story. Well, my uncle’s fishing stories are a lot like a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece written by the Employment Policies Institute, a conservative think tank trying to abolish the minimum wage – among other things.

The Institute uses a whole bucket of smelly fish a lot of misleading data to condemn local paid sick leave standards. And while both my uncle and the writer of the Journal op-ed are grand story tellers, the difference is when my uncle stretches the truth and conveniently forgets a few details, he’s telling a fish tale – not selling a red herring.

The Institute’s first whopper is interpreting the Bureau of Labor Statistics finding that 80% of private sector employee have “some type of leave” as meaning “paid sick leave.” The fact is, only 62% of the workforce has paid sick leave – and many aren’t able to use it. “Some type of leave” includes vacation time, which is typically scheduled months in advance – your own illness or that of a child doesn’t really come on a calendar.

The next fishy statement? The IWPR study referenced in the WSJ found only 3% of employers reported fewer employees came to work sick. What they didn’t catch: 25% of employees said they were better able to care for their own or their families’ health needs.  Among all groups, Black (29%), Latino (31%), low-wage (30%), women (27.5%), and workers over 55 (34%) were most likely to say they were better able to care for their own or their families’ health needs as a result of the law.

Then the Institute fails to read the economic currents: the Institute attributes 30% of low-wage employees reporting adverse hours or layoffs to paid sick leave alone. What they ignore: Around the time this study was done (late 2009 – early 2010), the U.S. economy was mired in recession, and San Francisco had also just mandated health insurance. The expense of health insurance far outweighs any conceivable impact from paid sick days.

Finally, they use junk bait (economically speaking): the median employee in San Francisco reported using 3 paid sick days per year. For someone working full time, that represents 1.2% of annual earnings. That’s around one-twentieth of the percentage increase in the federal minimum wage during and just after the Great Recession (rising from $5.85 to $7.25) — and no serious economist believes that increase in labor costs had any ill effects on the economy.

It’s no surprise to see this kind of snake-oil economics published in the school newspaper for the people who wrecked America’s Main Street economy – but it’s too bad the bar for facts and reasoned analysis is a such a low one.

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