By Rabbi Neil Hirsch
Carol, a congregant at my synagogue, is a 5th grade teacher in the Framingham public schools who has recently gotten into the habit of glancing at her watch at 11:30 AM. That’s when the requests to go to the nurse begin. Why 11:30? Why like clockwork? That’s when the Tylenol wears off for her students who come to school sick. Their parents, who cannot afford to take a day off to care for their children, gave them Tylenol in hopes of keeping their child’s symptoms at bay. So, Carol sends the children to the nurse, hoping that they’ll spend the day there instead of being sent back to the classroom to be with everyone else because the nurse’s office is at full capacity.
The school cannot send the students home because their caregivers are off at work. Because many parents do not earn sick leave, our school systems are taxed and our workspaces are exposed to illness. Simply put, the fact that many workers here in Massachusetts cannot earn hours of paid sick leave is holding us back as a community.
A person’s physical needs are my spiritual needs. That is how Rabbi Israel Salanter, a significant European Jewish thinker, taught it. Put another way, “You shall not torment a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” That’s the way the Book of Exodus (23:9) puts it. Or from a different perspective: rising tides lift all boats.
Many benefit when a community decides to provide for the physical needs of some. Such is the consistent view of the Jewish tradition. We know what it means to be strangers in a strange land, to be out of place, to be caught in the narrows. And so, that is why we Massachusetts voters need to go to the polls on November 4 and vote our values. Ballot Initiative No. 4 will enable employees to earn and use up to 40 hours of paid sick leave per year. We need to pass this initiative.
Because everyone gets sick. Granting the chance to earn paid sick leave would relieve pressure on our workforce. It would provide job security to those who fear losing a day’s wage to care for themselves or a loved one. A 2013 Staples survey reported that 90 percent of workers go to the office when ill. Women in the workforce would benefit directly. Women are over-represented in low-wage positions, and are more likely to serve as the family caregiver. A 2008 study by the Casey Institute showed that 74% of working mothers versus 40% of working fathers took time off when a child was sick. And, there are public health benefits as well. Workers in fear of losing a day’s wage or their jobs because of illness are more likely to come to work and infect others around them. Sick children whose parents cannot take time off are more likely to show up to school. Lack of sick leave increases the risk of spreading disease. Another person’s physical needs then run the risk of becoming your physical needs.
Approximately 900,000 Massachusetts workers currently have no agreement with their employers about sick leave—paid or unpaid. Mandating the ability for workers to earn paid sick leave will be a tide that will lift all boats. Currently 163 nations guarantee paid sick leave and California and Connecticut have passed measures as well. Massachusetts should join this vanguard, continuing to set an example to urge our country toward a national policy for paid sick leave.
In the Talmud, we are taught that “one who withholds an employee’s wages is as though he deprived him of his life” (BT Baba Metzia 112a). Withholding pay damages a worker’s livelihood. We are also depriving employees of their health when we give them no other options but to show up to work sick. Like wages, paid sick leave will lead to a healthier, more productive Massachusetts work force. It will lead to a healthier, happier school system. Bottom line, it will lead to a better Commonwealth. Our religious values point us in this direction, and it makes sense economically and for our communal health.
This Election Day, vote YES on Question 4, Earned Sick Time For Employees.
Rabbi Neil Hirsch serves at Temple Shalom in Newton, MA and lives in Brookline. He is also a member of the Commission on Social Action, and is on the faculties of both the Eisner Camp and Eser, Hebrew College’s young adult learning series.