Mandated paid sick leave a matter of life and death: Report

Benefit can lead to reductions in suicide, homicide, substance abuse

Mandated paid sick leave a matter of life and death: Report

Access to paid sick leave (PSL) could help reduce the mortality rate of workers, according to researchers from Syracuse University in the U.S.

This issue directly affects what happens in the workplace. For example, workers without PSL are more likely to forgo needed medical care and go to work despite illness compared with workers with PSL. Also, adults lacking PSL face higher risks of nonfatal occupational injuries and fatal unintentional injuries, such as transport accidents, they say.

“People who are employed in jobs that do not offer sick pay – if they get so sick that they can't go to work – there's a risk that they're going to lose their job. So having paid sick leave helps alleviate or ameliorate that risk,” says lead investigator Douglas Wolf, research professor of aging studies with the Aging Studies Institute at Syracuse University, in talking with Canadian HR Reporter.

“If you have paid sick leave on the job, it facilitates seeing a doctor or getting treatment for some kind of condition.”

But this extends far beyond the worksite. Specifically, among women, a one-hour increase in PSL is associated with a 0.2 per cent reduction in homicide (or 200 fewer deaths per 100,000 people) and a 0.4 per cent reduction in alcohol deaths (or 400 fewer deaths per 100,000 people), according to the report.

Among men, the same amount of increase in PSL result in 0.1 per cent reduction in suicide (or 100 fewer deaths per 100,000 people) and 0.2 per cent reduction in homicide, found the study that was based on data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Vital Statistics System (NVSS) on deaths among adults ages 25-64 by county from 1999-2019.

The decreases are sizable compared with those at a zero-hours baseline. In fact, moving from 0 to 40 hours of PSL would decrease homicide mortality by more than 13 per cent among women and by nearly eight per cent among men, according to the report.

In May 2020, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised that all Canadian workers will have access to 10 days of paid sick leave per year. In June this year, the federal government announced that amendments to the Canada Labour Code regarding the new benefit in the federally regulated private sector will come into force no later than Dec. 1, 2022.

Preemption laws

Given the benefit of PSL, it might be logical for all governments to offer this benefit. This, however, is not that easy, thanks to preemption laws, says Wolf.

“Preemption is a type of law that states have been passing in the United States that prevents lower-level governments like counties or cities from passing various kinds of laws or policies.”

Preemption laws have the potential to exert adverse consequences on working-age mortality, according to the report. The potential to save lives is greatest in the counties most affected by these preemption laws, large metropolitan counties in states that pre-empt both minimum wage and PSL laws and do not have a state minimum wage nor a PSL mandate, researchers say.

Researchers also looked at four specific counties that previously attempted to implement a PSL requirement, but were denied. If they had been allowed to implement the requirement, deaths by homicide, suicide and alcohol poisoning would have been 7.5 per cent lower in 2019, according to the study.

“The consequences of preemption laws stymie local government innovation, constrain opportunities to earn a living wage and take time off of work for medical care without financial repercussions, elevate the risk of death among infants and working age-adults, and contribute to geographic disparities in mortality,” says Wolf.

At least five days of paid sick leave each year is now standard for workers in British Columbia, with the rule taking effect at the start of this year. That came just within a couple of weeks after Bill C-3, which amends medical leave under Part III of the Canada Labour Code, received Royal Assent.

The research findings also point to the need for governments to balance the needs of businesses and workers, he says.

“One of the more provocative ways of expressing the lesson from our research is that government efforts to protect the profits of business owners can, in certain circumstances, actually have harmful consequences to the public, to their workforce.

“It can be expressed as a trade-off between the well-being of one group of people in small business owners, for example, against the well-being of another group of people – which I would say is a much larger group of people – which is the employees of small businesses and their families.”

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