Later today, Maine’s Labor Committee will get its first look at LD 1665, “An Act to Prevent the Spread of H1N1.” The bill, if passed, would require companies — big and small — to provide sick time to employees.

Lawmakers will likely hear impassioned pleas of workers who toil without benefit of sick days, and equally impassioned pleas of employers who are barely able to pay the bills and who fear mandatory sick pay will be yet another economic obstacle to overcome, or fail in trying.

The idea of mandatory sick days has come before the Legislature twice before, and twice failed. No state in the country requires companies to pay sick time, despite similar recent efforts in Wisconsin, California and Washington, D.C., so there is national focus on what Maine will do.

What Maine must do is decide the issue based on facts, and not fear.

Dr. Kevin Miller, who co-authored a Ford Foundation-funded report on the costs and benefits of paid sick days in Maine, is scheduled to make a presentation to Labor Committee members. He will present his research which concludes the benefits of providing sick time to workers far outweigh the costs.

According to Miller’s research, working Mainers could save $1.3 million a year by confining illness and reducing medical expenses. His research also suggests that employers would benefit by increasing productivity among a healthier work force, reducing turnover of trained staff and reducing medical expenses. If all employers in Maine did so, their collective benefit could total more than $185 million.

The work of the Labor Committee is to digest these details and decide whether the proposal is right for Maine, but based on Miller’s extensive report, mandatory sick days may improve the health of Maine’s businesses.

But there are more than numbers to consider.

According to advocates for passage of this bill, workers have been fired for not coming to work when they’re sick, or when they must stay home to care for sick children. That fear of being fired pressures employees to report to work and send their sick children to school, infecting customers, co-workers and fellow students alike.

The newly sick then spread their germs to others, and the wave of illness expands. That’s not productive in our workplaces or our classrooms. What customer wants a waitress sneezing in their omelet? Who wants a child carting the flu to school?

Staying home confines the spread of illness, which makes sense.

The proposal — which will be opposed — is not terribly greedy. Employers with more than 24 employees would be required to provide one hour of paid sick time per 40 hours worked, up to 52 hours, or 6.5 days. Employers with fewer than 24 employees would be required to provide one hour per 80 hours worked, or 3.25 days.

The bill is not perfect and needs some work, the most immediate being a different title. The one it carries, “An Act to Prevent the Spread of H1N1,” is unnecessarily panicky. The proposal is a requirement for time off for all sorts of illnesses, including time off for medical appointments or time to arrange protection with the courts in cases of domestic abuse, not only H1N1, so it needs a title based in reality.

It also needs reasoned consideration. If we’re a nation serious about health care reform, reducing the spread of illness is the best place to start.

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