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Something strange happened here this week: Lots of workers who've never done so before got the right to call in sick. And that's a good thing.

The Big Apple, you see, is joining a handful of other trailblazing cities such as Washington, San Francisco and Newark in guaranteeing workers what Congress has not: mandatory sick days. Wednesday was the first day that the newly covered workers could use the sick leave hours they have legally accrued.

The amount of sick leave New York workers can accumulate under the law is modest: one hour of leave for every 30 hours worked, up to a maximum of 40 leave hours a year. That's about five working days. And if their boss has fewer than five employees, the time can remain unpaid. Still, this is a very big deal, for both low-wage workers and their white-collar brethren like me -- that is, professionals who have probably taken paid sick time for granted for most of our careers.

Maybe we don't show much interest in the lives of the working poor, but we do presumably care about our immune systems. And thanks to this new law, we can finally rest assured that the baristas who serve us our morning lattes, the day-care aides who change our babies' diapers, the nurses who draw our blood at our physicals, the eatery workers who slather mayo on our turkey subs and the custodians who invisibly clean our office bathrooms can all go home if they're sick -- rather than sticking around and sneezing and coughing all over our food, bodies, kids and workspaces.

This implicit guarantee doesn't exist in most of the country. Only about a quarter of food workers nationwide have paid sick leave, according to an analysis by the Institute for Women's Policy Research. So it's perhaps not surprising that multiple surveys have found that more than half of food services workers say they've come to work sick. Read some of the many horrifying anecdotes collected about waiters, cooks, busboys and other food handlers coming in with norovirus, hepatitis A, pinkeye and other contagious illnesses, and you'll never again want to eat a restaurant meal without first dousing it in Purell.

As you can imagine, most employees who arrive at work after puking their guts out don't do so cheerily. They knowingly put others' health at risk for two key reasons. One is that they can't afford to miss a shift. The other is that they fear getting fired for the great sin of missing work because of illness. And in most of the country, businesses can fire workers for missing work, regardless of the reason.

Employers, after all, don't see much of the upside of providing sick leave, since they don't bear the full costs imposed by making workers perform their duties while ill. Unlike with an E. coli outbreak, for the most part customers who contract the flu from an ailing sandwich maker probably won't be able to trace the bug back to the establishment where they caught it.

As a result, many companies see unilaterally offered sick leave, especially paid sick leave, as a cost that would put them at a competitive disadvantage against their less compassionate or scrupulous rivals.

It's a collective-action problem. That's why federal legislation -- requiring sick leave and other kinds of worker protections -- is crucial. Right now, of 22 developed countries, the United States is the only one that doesn't require paid sick days. Even more egregiously, of the 185 countries and territories tracked by the International Labour Organization, we are joined by only Papua New Guinea in not requiring paid maternity leave.

True, some U.S. cities and states have taken the lead in guaranteeing these and other leave policies, at minimal cost to businesses . Even so, plenty of other jurisdictions have taken steps in the opposite direction. States such as Wisconsin, Florida and North Carolina, for example, have pre-emptively banned local sick-leave mandates.

As with so many facets of our economy, when it comes to time off, we are partitioning into two nations: There is the United States where it's OK to be sick on occasion and still hold on to your job; and the United States where, come hell or high water or food poisoning, you're still expected in tomorrow at 7 a.m. sharp.

Catherine Rampell's email address is

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