Sandwich Maker Gets Fired After Calling In Sick, Then Joins A Crusade

paid sick leaveFor three years, Ian Rizzio, 24, had been working for a Portland sandwich shop to put himself through school. He was the manager -- working 25 to 35 hours a week, earning $9.50 an hour -- when one day he woke up feeling sick. He went into work, but ended up vomiting in the bathroom. Knowing that he couldn't serve food under the state's health code, he waited in his car for two hours, trying to reach his boss, and leaving messages. Finally he says he went home to rest.

When Rizzio came to the shop the next day, he says that his boss fired him on the spot. Like almost everywhere in the U.S. today, it was then legal in Portland for an employer to fire someone for calling in sick. "With over $35,000 in student loans, it was a do-or-die situation," Rizzio told AOL Jobs. He thought that he might have to withdraw from school, where he was studying to be a mechanical engineer.

Luckily, Rizzio managed to find a new job the next day, as a prep cook. But when the advocacy group Working America knocked on his door soon after, and asked if he wanted to get involved in their sick-day campaign, Rizzio gave an enthusiastic yes. And on Wednesday, after Rizzio and others testified before the Portland City Council, it voted unanimously to approve a law requiring private employers to offer paid sick leave It became the fourth city in the U.S. to adopt such a bill; on Thursday, Philadelphia's City Council passed a similar bill, but it failed to get enough votes to overcome the mayor's likely veto.

More: Can You Be Fired For Calling In Sick -- Even With A Doctor's Note?

"Me and my fiancee both work in the food industry, as do many of my close relatives and close friends," explains Rizzio, who helped collect signatures supporting Portland's sick day bill. "It was an issue that hit really close to home."

According to the advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Center United, almost 90 percent of restaurant workers don't have paid sick leave. Overall, about 40 percent of American workers have no paid sick leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In a 2011 survey, the Center for Disease Control found that 12 percent of food service workers had vomited or had diarrhea on two or more shifts in the past year. Under Portland's new law, businesses with at least six employees must grant their workers an hour of sick leave for every 30 hours they work -- up to 40 hours a year.

More: 7 Best Chain Restaurants To Work For

The fight for paid sick days has been an uphill battle. Republicans quashed a 2009 bill that would have mandated sick leave nationwide for businesses with at least 15 employees, so movement on the issue has been local. Since 2007, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Seattle, the state of Connecticut, and now Portland have mandated paid sick leave.

But the issue has gained momentum in the last few months, with advocacy groups, like the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, campaigning aggressively for new laws. Earlier this month, Maryland lawmakers proposed their own version of the law, and on Friday, New York City will have a public hearing on its own paid sick leave bill. Even feminist icon Gloria Steinem has spoken out on the subject, saying that she won't support New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn unless she reverses her opposition to the bill.

More: 7 Part-Time Jobs That Pay Up To $40 An Hour

Sick leave proposals tend to face strong resistance from business. Quinn has said that she supports the goal of paid sick leave, but that "with the current state of the economy and so many businesses struggling to stay alive, I do not believe it would be wise to implement this policy, in this way, at this time."

"It's the same arguments that business leaders always have," explains Rizzio about the opposition he faced in his hometown. "It's going to cost more money. It's going to be less efficient. They're going to move business out of Portland."

Research has not backed up these fears though. The nonprofit research group the Institute for Women's Policy Research conducted a cost-benefit analysis of sick leave laws almost everywhere they come to a vote. Their results are always the same: The estimated cost of paid sick leave (around 19 cents per hour per employee) is significantly outweighed by the savings due to reduced turnover and increased productivity. The institute also calculated significant savings for the government in terms of fewer emergency room visits, fewer nursing home stays, and more limited virus outbreaks.

A study published last year analyzing the flu pandemic of 2009 found that a lack of paid sick leave contributed to an estimated 6.2 million cases.

Opposition, however, is sizable and steadfast. In 2011, Denver voted down a paid leave bill almost 2 to 1, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker banned any locality from passing paid sick leave regulations, nullifying the law that Milwaukee passed in 2008. And last September, the board of commissioners in Orange County, Fla., knocked paid sick leave off the upcoming ballot, despite 50,000 citizen signatures in support of it. It later emerged that the board had been in close contact with lobbyists for The Walt Disney Company, operators of the Walt Disney World Resort, and for Darden Restaurants, which owns Red Lobster and Olive Garden.

For people who lack paid sick leave and hope to follow Portland's example, Rizzio has one piece of advice: "Organize."

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Sick pay is not a right. Sick pay is a benefit offered by businesses and government to attract better more qualified people.

March 16 2013 at 9:40 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

If you work in food when sick stay home. If the boss fires you then they are short sighted.Why because you could pass on illness, that could cause that place to be closed. It has happened . So I dont blame a person for standing up for worker rights. But I do think it has to be done with both sides taken into account.

March 16 2013 at 8:55 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

"Me and my fiancee both .... Stay in school.

March 16 2013 at 6:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Don't get me wrong, I'm a firm supporter of employee rights and I bleed Union blood. But, I suspect there is much more to this tale than we have been told. I'm not saying there is no merit to this story, but as we all know, the media loves to hype up a bullshit tale and omit the facts. Somebody come clean with the facts without the slant?

March 16 2013 at 2:51 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

still think it should be a requirement to be fined for being at work sick-which is where the paid sick leave should come in. and a manager should be onhand at all times, not at home to monitor and ensure anyone sick is not showing up at work, and staying home where they belong to avoid spreading virus and germs. a company should be fined for firing any employee who is truly sick and cannot work. this is the best way and best solution to handle sick days and the way to prevent virus, germs, etc from spreading and becoming immune to vaccinations.

March 15 2013 at 11:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The government continues to negatively impact businesses through heavy handed regulations. Even if this story is completely true, that employer is in the smallest minority of businesses out there. Any business owner who knows how to run a business and cares about his customers, takes care of his employees. I don't care what you sell, your employees are your most important asset. I own 3 small (under 100 rooms) independent hotels and we do not have a sick policy per se. What we do have is a group of employees who have been with me for a very long time and we have enough respect for each other that we work sick time out. We're also not covered by the Family Medical Leave Act but my female employees who have children receive plenty of time off after giving birth. We even make allowances for new fathers. I'm always skeptical when I read these stories where an employer just snaps and kicks a valued, long time employee out for a seemingly inocuous offense. There's probably more to the story that hasn't been reported, but the employer is bound by confidentiality laws and can't respond to defend himself. Hopefully, people who read these types of stories take them with a grain of salt and wait for the full story before calling for boycotts and other damaging tactics that may harm the business for doing absolutely nothing wrong.

March 15 2013 at 10:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The story doesn't add up. If the kid was an honest good worker with a good work record, there's no way he'd get fired for that.

March 15 2013 at 10:39 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

You get what you pay for...

March 15 2013 at 10:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Sick pay is just another vacation day, and that is what most good companies state it as. You usually accrue them and when sick utilize a day so. The author of this article needs to put himself or herself in the boots of the ower or operator of a business. Most business do not have an extra body standing around to take someones place that calls in sick, especially a manager person. What was lacking in this situation was not Sick Leave but a plan to operate in the case of a person being sick. Do not be too quick to chose sides as there is alway two different versions of the same act.

March 15 2013 at 8:41 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

These stories are all a bunch of crap....Continuing to re-inforce the fake class warfare battle.Created and fueled by the left. I have owned and operated small businesses for 25 years. No small business man ever does anything like this to good hard working , honest hardworking employees.(they are to hard to find, train and replace) Every small business owner recognizes the value of his people and the need the have for them to have continued success.

March 15 2013 at 6:52 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

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