Paid sick leave advocate from Dearborn presses issue in Congress

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
On Capitol Hill, Christina Hayes of Dearborn speaks about the Healthy Families Act, a bill in Congress to require paid sick leave for workers.

Washington — After her diagnosis in 2007, Christina Hayes of Dearborn rapidly burned through vacation days to receive treatment for lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease. 

She ended up missing so many days that supervisors wrote her up, and she risked losing her job. Hayes said she started skipping treatments, collapsed at work and had to be carried out on a stretcher. 

The experience transformed her into an advocate who lobbied for Michigan's paid sick leave law, which  takes  effect this month. Hayes has now taken her campaign to the U.S. Capitol.

She joined Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill Thursday as they reintroduced a bill to allow workers at businesses with at least 15 employees to earn up to 56 hours, or seven days' worth, of paid sick leave a year. 

"There's no better opportunity to come to D.C. to really have your voice heard statewide and nationwide," Hayes said. 

"I hope being here will encourage more people to support paid sick days and to vote for the Healthy Families Act." 

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, has sponsored the legislation in every Congress since 2004 and, with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, since 2015. 

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Business groups have opposed the idea as an expensive mandate that burdens small companies with high costs and excessive paperwork.

Hayes is among an estimated 34 million private-sector workers who don't have paid sick days, they said, forcing them to either go without pay when ill or go into work sick and risk infecting their co-workers. 

The Healthy Families Act, which has 122 co-sponsors in the House and 32 in the Senate, would permit workers to stay home when they are ill, care for a sick family member or seek assistance related to domestic violence, stalking or sexual assault.

"This is an issue that impacts every single person in this country because, frankly, everyone gets sick," said Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. 

Another co-sponsor, Rep. Alma Adams, D-North Carolina, said the issue disproportionately affects hourly low-wage workers, people of color and women. 

"Women who take time off from work can suffer significant income loss, contributing to the persistent wage gap that women, especially women of color, still face at work," said Adams, who chairs the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Workforce Protections. 

DeLauro said she sees momentum for national paid sick leave, noting that 10 states and over 20 localities have adopted the policy.

"When we were talking about paid sick days (in Connecticut), the word was, oh my God, the economy is, excuse me, going to go to hell in a hand basket. Businesses are not going to be able to deal," she said.

"I must tell you, it's been several years now, and it's working well." 

Hayes now has a job working for Delta Airlines, which does provide paid sick leave. She declined to identify her former employer.

Hayes, who is affiliated with the group Mothering Justice in Ferndale, said she testified in Lansing in 2017 about the need for paid sick leave. 

"I feel like a lot of people that have chronic illness really do want to go to work, and they are good workers. They just sometimes need a little time" to deal with their health, she said. 

For two years, she helped collect over 300,000 voter signatures for a ballot initiative that Michigan lawmakers ended up adopting before Election Day last year. 

Republican state lawmakers later weakened the measure after input from business groups, which complained the citizen-initiated proposal as written would have caused employers "difficulty."  

The changes exempted companies with 50 or fewer employees (more than 160,000 small businesses) and reduced the minimum number of hours employers would have to provide to 40 hours a year — less than the 72 hours touted in the ballot initiative.

Employees in Michigan can accrue one hour of medical leave for every 35 hours worked, down from every 30 hours worked.

Former Gov. Rick Snyder signed lame-duck legislation in December.

The GOP -led Legislature last month said it would ask the state Supreme Court for a ruling on its decision to adopt and then amend the paid sick leave initiative, as well as one related to the minimum wage. 

The state ballot committee MI Time to Care has argued that the Legislature's "adopt and amend" scheme was unconstitutional.