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Sick of it

Orange County activists race against time to push an earned sick-time ordinance

Photo: Rob Bartlett, License: N/A

Rob Bartlett

Members of Organize Now and Citizens for a Greater Orange County make some noise June 30 in downtown Orlando.

It's a familiar refrain for those working in service jobs: "Either you come in today, or you don't have a job." However, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 mandates 12 weeks of unpaid leave  to employees working in companies that employ more than 50 people without fear of reprisal, but according to the nonpartisan Urban Institute, that law – which does not mandate paid leave in any jurisdiction – skews in favor of higher wage earners and men. A 2002 study by the Urban Institute found that 76.2 percent of female working parents aged 18 to 54 received paid leave, while 83.5 percent of male working parents received the same. Likewise, the closer the income of parents in relation to the poverty line, the less likely they are to see any paid leave. Among those who were living below the 100 percent level of poverty in 2002, only 45 percent reported any access to paid leave. Those who need it most are least likely to receive it.

In December 2009, then-22-year-old Brendon Rivard was moonlighting as a cook for Friendly Confines at Waterford Lakes (he was a full-time student at the University of Central Florida and a substitute teacher by day) when he came down with a throat infection. He tried to call in sick.

"They said you can either come in tonight or you don't have a job," he recalls.

Rivard did go into work, where he trudged through a five-hour shift, even coughing up an aspirin that he was trying to swallow to allay the pain. He ended up in the emergency room.

"It think it's just they know they have control," he says of his bosses. "They know they have the power in the situation."

Until about a year ago, 27-year-old Maria McCluskey was a manager at Dillard's. During the busy holiday season, she had a gallbladder attack and knew that she couldn't work. Her doctor recommended that she take a full week off for recovery.

"I went back to work the next day at 9 a.m., not 100 percent, not feeling so hot," she says, adding that because it was an internal injury, she didn't look sick. "Had I decided to follow the doctor's orders, I would have been out of a job."

Garrett Poulin, 43, has worked as a server in the restaurant industry for more than two decades, though he won't discuss his current employer on the record for fear of losing his job. He's seen this all before.

"Earned sick time just does not exist in our profession," he says. "You learn by watching your friends and watching yourself. The truth of the matter is you go into work sick. And what you hope is going to happen is that you're so sick – and you've already prepped the line, delivered the food, scooped out the ice – that your boss sends you home early.

"The issue I have is the fact that you cannot discriminate against a person who is ill," he adds, meaning that though employers may take issue with an employee's integrity, that shouldn't come into play when the person is legitimately sick. "That's when people are really scared. [The companies] don't make decisions that are necessarily good for the workplace. Being afraid and being poor is a fact of life for a lot of people in Orlando."

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