As many Americans watch their job benefits shrink amid tight budgets, Connecticut is about to defy the trend: It's set to become the first state to mandate paid sick days for some low-wage workers.
Across the country, 40 million people have no paid sick time, and advocates now see momentum for a national movement.
Connecticut's Democratic governor, Dan Malloy, campaigned on this issue and has said he'll sign the bill that passed its final legislative hurdle early Saturday morning, after a daylong debate. It would provide up to a week of paid sick time, largely to service workers in companies with 50 or more employees.
The new mandate is welcome relief for people like Desiree Rosado. A few years ago, her three children came down with swine flu. Rosado had to stay home from her job as a teaching assistant for two weeks, with no pay.
"It was pretty rough for a little bit," she says. "I work because I need [to]. We have no choice right now."
Rosado's husband was out of work for a time, and the couple are struggling to rebuild their credit. He's a security guard now but also has no paid sick time. After the swine flu setback, they had to postpone a mortgage payment and stop repaying some debt. Like so many, Rosado says she often feels compelled to show up for work even if she's sick.
During debate over the bill, lawmakers heard from people who had been fired for missing work when they, or their children, were ill. One woman told NPR she struggled through her job in a doughnut shop despite having pneumonia. At the end of one night shift, nearly delirious, she unwittingly put the day's earnings into the trash bin.
Jon Green of Connecticut Working Families says the newly passed law is a matter of public health.
"Nobody wants the person who is serving their food, driving their kids to school, providing day care or home health care to be going to work with an illness," Green says.
Businesses lobbied hard against the legislation, and it was scaled back. It won't apply to manufacturing, temporary workers or independent contractors. Still, lawmakers like state Rep. John Rigby (R) say it will burden restaurants and other businesses that are already struggling in a tough economy.
"They're going to have to shed jobs," Rigby says. "They're going to have to let people go. They're going to have to make a decision about whether to open the next brew pub in Connecticut or in Massachusetts or Rhode Island — states that are considered more business-friendly than our state."
Those same dire predictions have been made before, when San Francisco and Washington, D.C., mandated paid sick days a few years back. But Ellen Bravo of the nonprofit Family Values at Work says it didn't happen.
"Not at all," she says. "In San Francisco, where they've now had it four years, studies have shown not just that it hasn't hurt productivity or profitability, but two-thirds of employers now support the law."
Bravo hopes Connecticut will inspire others. Philadelphia, Seattle and Denver are all expected to vote on similar legislation in coming months, and there are campaigns in other cities.
"It says a lot," she says, "about the fact that working families are desperate for some relief and that lawmakers are seeing, more and more, the enormous public support for it."
But public opinion may not be decisive. In 2008, Milwaukee approved a paid sick days law with nearly 70 percent voter support. Then a business group sued, and Wisconsin's Legislature and governor brought legal action to stop it. That effort is now tied up in the courts.