Credit: George Danby

We all get sick, and we all deserve time to get better.

But for many Mainers, time to recover from illness comes at a steep cost. For the thousands and thousands of Mainers without access to paid sick days, the choice to call in sick or take time off work to see a doctor means a smaller check on payday.

No Mainer should face a financial penalty for the misfortune of catching a stomach bug, suffering a debilitating migraine or having a sick child sent home from school.

In “ State of Working Maine 2018,” the Maine Center for Economic Policy outlined the evidence proving how a lack of paid sick leave hurts our state. This year, we can improve families’ financial security, decrease the spread of illness and boost productivity by expanding access to earned, paid sick days. A bill by State Sen. Rebecca Millett provides the Legislature with a vehicle to expand this critical benefit to all Maine workers.

The lack of paid sick days is widespread. More than 40 percent of private-sector workers in Maine lack even a single hour of paid sick leave, according to a 2015 Institute for Women’s Policy Research study. Workers with low incomes are far more likely than wealthier Mainers to lose wages when they fall ill. Nearly two out of every three low-income Mainers has no access to paid sick time.

For those who lack paid sick time, a sudden illness or injury — their own or a family member’s — can be the difference between staying afloat and going under. For families already working paycheck-to-paycheck, missing shifts means greater difficulty affording prescriptions, filling the oil tank or putting food on the table. People who live paycheck-to-paycheck can’t afford to focus on their health or the health of their families when their ability to pay the rent is on the line.

This precarious situation is a drag on our economy and exacerbates inequality and financial insecurity for Maine families. MECEP analysis of data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey reveals that in 2017, Mainers lost $115 million in wages as a result of unpaid sick leave. Paid sick days will put that money back into Mainers’ pockets. When families can cover afford the necessities without having to sacrifice their health, our whole economy benefits.

Guaranteed access to paid sick days will protect the health and incomes of Maine workers. But it also benefits employers.

A healthy workforce supports a healthy economy. Businesses with policies that provide earned paid sick days enjoy the benefits of healthier, more productive workers. When sick workers can choose to stay home without losing pay, fewer employees get sick, leading to an overall reduction in the number of unfilled shifts.

The alternative is employees turning up sick on the job, doing lower quality work and spreading illness to customers and coworkers alike. A 2016 survey found that 50 percent of restaurant workers and 60 percent of medical workers — among the two groups most likely to spread illness on the job — had gone to work while they were sick. No one wants a line cook with the flu preparing their meal, or a nurse battling bronchitis taking their blood pressure at the doctor’s office. Giving those workers access to paid sick leave will improve not just their health, but the health of their customers and coworkers.

When workers take paid sick days, they recover faster and don’t make their coworkers sick. When fewer workers are sick and illness is cared for faster, there’s less turnover and increased productivity.

Maine needs a universal policy for paid sick days because illness does not discriminate between those who can afford to take time off and those who cannot. We can do better than a status quo in which thousands and thousands of predominantly low-income workers are penalized for getting sick.

All of us deserve the protection of paid sick days. Guaranteeing that protection will reduce inequality, boost our economy and protect Mainers’ wages and well-being.

James Myall is a policy analyst at Maine Center for Economic Policy, and author of State of Working Maine 2018.