Tell Council members: Back paid sick days

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A child gets sick with the flu. A doctor’s appointment. A broken leg. These inevitable situations often require time away from work. But for many hard-working restaurant employees in Washington, taking time off carries the risk of losing a paycheck or even a job.

According to a 2011 study by the Restaurant Opportunities Center, eight in 10 D.C. restaurant workers can’t take a single paid sick day, and nearly 60 percent have admitted to serving food while sick.


Although Washington, D.C., passed the Accrued Sick and Safe Leave Act in 2008, allowing District workers to earn paid sick time, the law excludes tipped workers such as wait staff and bartenders. For many of these people, the decision to take an unpaid sick day could mean the loss of necessary income for themselves and their family.

As paradoxical as it sounds, restaurant employees actually risk going hungry if they get sick. Research shows that just 3 1/2 unpaid sick days can wipe out a family’s entire grocery budget for the month.

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At the most basic level, we should care about paid sick leave because all hard-working people deserve time off when our bodies need to recover. Even at the most self-serving level, we should care because a lack of paid sick days for restaurant workers poses a public health threat to all of us and our loved ones. Without the option to stay home and still meet their monthly rent and food bills, people who touch our food and handle our meals must do so even if they are infected with a contagious illness.

Jewish tradition holds strongly to valuing workers’ dignity, as well as maintaining fair wages and conditions. The Torah commands: “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow Israelite or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay out the wages due on the same day, before the sun sets, for the worker is needy and urgently depends on it” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15). From these ancient words, we as a Jewish community have developed moral guidelines on how to treat all workers.


The cruel irony of D.C.’s current law is that the individuals who can least afford to take a day off — who are living paycheck to paycheck — are the very people who are least likely to have paid sick leave. Only 13 percent of restaurant workers earn a livable wage to begin with, and the minimum wage in D.C. for tipped workers is $2.77 an hour.

For the past two years, Jews United for Justice (JUFJ) has been campaigning with over 60 other coalition members for the law to be expanded. Thanks to their hard work, and action by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and others, the Council introduced a new bill on Sept. 17 — the Earned Sick and Safe Leave Amendment Act — that would strengthen and expand the existing paid sick days law to include tipped workers.

The bill still hasn’t been voted on, nor is it a surefire win. We need you to tell your Council members that you support the expansion of paid sick days and that this issue is important to you.

The Council has a chance to build on the 2008 law and help realize its full promise.

By expanding access to paid sick days and improving enforcement, D.C. will strengthen the well-being of its families, businesses and economy. It’s time for our policies to reflect both our values and common sense.

Maya Brod is a volunteer leader in the Paid Sick Days campaign and a proud member of JUFJ. She works in nonprofit communications and advocates for health equity on a daily basis.

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