Why We Need to Require Paid Sick Days

Ever since the Vermont Workers’ Center started the Workers’ Rights Hotline in 1998, we have heard from countless workers and their families about the hardship and suffering caused by the lack of paid sick days. It has become clear that the right to paid sick days is critical for the well-being of workers, their families and our communities. It is core to our human right to a safe and healthy workplace, our human right to health and healthcare, and our need to hold down a job and take care of our family at the same time.We have heard from all too many people whose health got worse as they continued to work rather than get care, who lost their job because they took their sick child to the hospital, or who struggled to pay rent after losing a few days’ wages.

What kind of society do we live in where ill people who desperately need to get healthcare and recover at home, or care for a sick family member, must instead go to work because they can’t afford to miss a day’s pay, or risk losing their job? We all have a human right to dignified work, which requires safe and healthy workplaces and the ability to provide and care for our loved ones. We have a human right to health that includes our right to get healthcare as well as our right to heal and recover. Sick workers must be able to go to the doctor and stay at home when they need to, instead of being forced to work. Parents and other caregivers must be able to seek medical attention for their child or family member and to care for them at home, without risking their jobs. That is why we need to secure the right to paid sick days in Vermont.

Becoming a parent has given me a whole new perspective on paid sick days. Hearing from people through our Workers’ Rights Hotline raised my awareness of this issue, but experiencing it first hand has been a real eye opener. When the childcare center informs you that your kid has a fever and has to stay at home, you realize this means you can’t go to work. This affects all of us who care for children or other family members. As a society, we cannot afford that only those with higher incomes and certain types of jobs are able to care for their loved ones. It is not right that those who most depend on a day’s wages must choose between keeping their job or caring for their child. I am reminded of the sad story one of our VWC members told when she testified about the proposed cuts to the Reach Up program. Here’s what she said:

“Someone asked me the other day why I don’t have a job instead of being on Reach Up. Let me tell you what I told them. … I was working at a restaurant in New Hampshire, about 40 minutes from where I live. I was making just $7.25 an hour. I was only getting 20-25 hours each week, and many of the shifts were nights and weekends so I had to find additional childcare. … Then I actually ended up losing that job because I had to stay home with my daughter when she was sick with tonsillitis and a fever. I couldn’t send her to school, so I had no choice.”

As workers, we are more than just employees. We are parents, caregivers, and members of our community. We are human beings. We take pride in work done well, we rely on our wages to pay rent and buy food, we are responsible for caring for others, and we take part in building healthy communities. We need paid sick days to live and work with dignity. This is a right that Vermont must ensure for all of us.

Join me for a public hearing on the Earned Paid Sick Days bill, H.208, on April 18 at 5:30 p.m. at the State House in Montpelier.

James Haslam is the Executive Director of the Vermont Workers’ Center, which was founded in 1998 and has grown into a statewide community-based workers organization with thousands of members committed to standing for justice and organizing for human rights. Website: