The failure of our corporate and political leaders to make sure every worker gets good health care is causing some unpleasant consequences — like widespread stomach flu.
Ill workers often spread illness, because millions of employees who deal directly with the public are not covered by paid sick leave policies. So, when they come down with something like the stomach flu, they tend to drag themselves to work, rather than going to bed until they recover, since staying home means a loss of pay — or even the loss of their jobs.
Low-wage workers in the restaurant industry are particularly vulnerable and, since they handle food, particularly threatening. Nearly 80 percent of America's food service workers receive no paid sick leave, and researchers have found that about half of them go to work ill because they fear losing their jobs if they don't. As a result, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that ill workers are causing up to 80 percent of America's stomach flu outbreaks, which is one reason the CDC has declared our country's lack of paid sick leave to be a major public health threat.
You'd think the industry itself would be horrified enough by this endangerment of its customers that it would take the obvious curative step of providing the leave. But au contraire, amigos, such huge and hugely profitable chains as McDonald's, Red Lobster and Taco Bell not only fail to provide such common-sense care for their employees, but also have lobbied furiously against city and state efforts to require paid sick days.
Ironically, the top corporate executives of these chains (who are not involved in preparing or serving food to the public) are protected with full sick leave policies. For them to deny it to workers is idiotic, dangerously shortsighted — and even more sickening than stomach flu.
But what about our lawmakers? Where's the leadership we need on this basic issue of fairness and public health? To paraphrase an old bumper sticker: "When the people lead, leaders will follow. Or not."
Not when the "leaders" are in the pocket of corporate interests that don't like where the people are leading. Take Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who never met a corporate pocket too grungy to climb into. This story starts in 2008, when the people of Milwaukee took the lead on the obvious need for a program allowing employees to earn a few days of paid sick leave each year, to be used if they fall ill or must care for a sick family member. Seven out of 10 Milwaukee voters approved that measure in a citywide referendum.
Corporate interests, however, sued to stall the people's will, tying the sick leave provision up in court until 2011. By then, the corporations had put up big bucks to put Walker into the governorship — and right into their pocket. Sure enough, he dutifully nullified the Milwaukee vote by passing a "state pre-emption" law, autocratically banning local governments from requiring sick leave benefits for employees.
Just three months later, Walker's pre-emption ploy was the star at a meeting of ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), the corporate front group that brings state legislators into secret sessions with CEOs and lobbyists. There, legislators are handed model laws to benefit corporations — then sent home to pass them. At a session overseen by Taco Bell, attendees got copies of Walker's no-paid-sick-leave edict, along with a how-to-pass-it lecture by the National Restaurant Association. "Go forth, and pre-empt local democracy!" was the message.
And, lo, they did. Bills summarily prohibiting local governments from passing paid-sick-leave ordinances are being considered in at least 12 states this year, and Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee have already passed theirs.
Florida's process was especially ugly. Organize Now!, a coalition of voters in Orlando, had obtained 50,000 signatures to put a sick leave referendum on last November's ballot. But, pressured by the hugely profitable Disney World empire, county commissioners arbitrarily removed it from the ballot.
The scrappy coalition, however, took 'em to court — and won, getting the referendum rescheduled for a 2014 vote. Disney & Gang scuttled off to Tallahassee this year to conspire with Gov. Rick Scott and Republican legislative leaders. Quicker than a bullet leaves a gun, those corporate-hugging politicos obligingly delivered a "kill shot" to Orlando voters by enacting a Walkeresque state usurpation of local authority.
By spreading Walker's autocratic nastiness from state to state, money-grubbing low-wage profiteers are literally spreading illness all across our land.
— Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, writer, public speaker and author of Swim Against The Current: Even A Dead Fish Can Go With The Flow. Click here to contact him, follow him on Twitter: @JimHightower, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.