Flu Outbreak: Why Paid Sick Days Matter

Americans should recognize that guaranteeing paid sick days to workers would help moderate the impact of influenza and other contagious diseases

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Jessica Kourkounis / Getty Images

Luis Puentes, director of emergency preparedness at Lehigh Valley Health Network's main hospital campus, applies a decal to a mobile tent set up to handle the recent influx of flu cases in Allentown, Pa., on Jan. 11, 2013

We are in the midst of one of the worst flu seasons in recent memory. By the end of it, about 60 million Americans are likely to contact influenza, over 200,000 will probably to be hospitalized and tens of thousands will have died. While we typically look to doctors and medicines in a health crisis, we should recognize that guaranteeing paid sick days to workers could do as much, if not more, to help moderate the impact of influenza and other contagious diseases.

(VIDEO: TIME Explains: The Flu and How it Spreads)

Every other industrialized nation in the world guarantees this right, but very few places in the U.S. do; they include a handful of cities like San Francisco, Milwaukee, Washington and Seattle — and one lone state: Connecticut. What that means is if you live anywhere else in the nation, you can be fired for missing work because of an illness or for caring for a sick family member. About 40% of workers in the U.S. do not get paid sick days — the Department of Labor classifies it as a “benefit,” not a right protected by law.

This is not just inhumane but a matter of public health. The jobs with the most contact with the public are the least likely to provide sick days, such as the hospitality and food-service industries. For example, when you go to purchase a cup of coffee or eat a restaurant, know that almost all (76%) of the people serving you are likely to show up to work sick, because not doing so means not getting paid and could mean getting fired. Scholars have a name for this — presenteeism: being at work when you otherwise should not be for fear of losing your job or being viewed by your boss as lazy or unreliable. This is a real problem; over two-thirds of American workers report having gone to work even though they knew they had an infectious disease and as a result, about one-third of us have reported getting the flu from a colleague.

(MORE: Working on Holidays: The New Class Divide?)

In my own city of New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn have refused to support paid-sick-leave policies because they believe providing this worker protection will hurt businesses. They’re wrong. Not only is such lack of leadership making millions of Americans sick each year, it’s also costing us money. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has shown that the cost of sick leave is minimal. And researchers have argued that the productivity gains for other workers who are less likely to get sick because their colleagues stayed home more than makes up for this difference.

In fact, after the city of San Francisco passed a paid-sick-leave bill, it had higher rates of employment compared with its neighboring cities without such a policy. Paid sick leave works. Employees are not only likely to use it, helping stem the spread of disease, they’re also more likely to use preventative-health-care services. The Center for American Progress estimates that universal sick leave could reduce emergency-room visits by 1.3 million per year, saving the U.S. over a billion dollars in medical costs.

(MORE: Why This Year’s Flu Strain Hit So Early and So Hard)

Without government-protected sick leave, we are asking workers to weigh the immediate risks of holding their jobs and making enough to live against the vague chance of making others sick. It is the poorest workers with the most precarious jobs who are most often forced into this impossible situation. Perhaps the greatest impact we could have in fighting the flu this season is supporting the right for workers to be absent when they’re not well. It’s not only good for these workers, it’s good for the nation, and it’s very likely to help you avoid getting sick in the first place.

 

6 comments
JudyWarthen
JudyWarthen

My husband contracted a nasty cold from one of his colleagues who came into work.Waking up sick and coughing up a lung the next day my husband called off work that day and the following until his temperature dropped, and he started to clear up.When he went back into work, he was written up and received six points against his record (they are on an 8 point system, 8 points and you are fired).Meanwhile, the cold he picked up from his fellow worker, spread to myself, and my nine year old.This I think could have been avoided, if the company A. allowed for paid sick leave and B. did not write up their employees for taking a sick day.

makfan
makfan

I agree that it is a problem that so many workers do not have a choice when they are sick except to come to work. Fear of losing your job or not being able to pay your bills because you miss a couple of days pay is genuine.

On the other hand, I work in high tech. We get a pool of days off (flexible time off) that we can use for vacations, illnesses, medical appointments, etc. People can also work at home for the most part. Yet many still come to the office coughing and sneezing. It's so maddening.  I think there is just a culture that takes some sort of false pride in "never missing a day due to illness" but it needs to stop. I do not want to feel lousy for a week so you can claim perfect attendance. In fact, many people I work with talk about hitting the maximum time off cap, yet refuse to take a day or two off to deal with a cold.  Stay home when you are sick.

ElizabethDeSalvo
ElizabethDeSalvo like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 4 Like

Not only would paid sick leave prevent the spread of disease and reduce the billions of unpaid medical debt that so many already can never afford to pay back (this is just one reason why healthcare costs triple virtually every other country), but it would potentially also relieve the insane stress for families and improve quality of life overall. Maybe even bring up those life expediencies that are now dwindling.  I'm not saying that all these shootings and violent crimes going on are a result of unpaid sick leave, but this is just another factor that is contributing to the overall dissatisfaction of life in America. We work to the bone, from cradle to grave, in constant competition, but it's never good enough. Many people think they are owed something not just because they were raised to believe everyone is a special snowflake, but because we do work below our worth and can't even afford to miss work while sick. We keep working, but don't get what we should as employees. Even if you go to college, you cannot find decent employment and you can't be guaranteed health care, let alone paid sick leave. You are trained to go to school and work when sick because OTC medications give the message that that's what they're there for. You spread disease because if you don't, your family doesn't eat and you can lose everything. If we weren't the most stressed nation, the most violent nation and the nation that spends most on health care while being the least healthy 1st world nation, maybe my opinions would be different on just how important paid sick leave is. Heck, we don't even have the same rights for women that the majority of the world has. We scoff at paid maternity leave and claim it's bad for business. Eventually, we not only won't be able to afford to live or work in this country, but forget about reproducing or keeping the country going. 

makfan
makfan like.author.displayName 1 Like

@ElizabethDeSalvo Yes, so many of our practices are based on this idea of that what is best for business should supersede anything else.

People talk about not wanting the government to somehow ration health care, but we already have rationed health care.  If you have a "good" job you get health care benefits. Your company and its insurer decide what treatment you qualify for. If you have a less good job, you don't have health care benefits and little problems can go untreated until they become devastatingly expensive.

I honestly wonder what happens when nobody in this country who works full time can afford to buy any of the products they help produce and/or support.  

SuzanneLurie
SuzanneLurie like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 5 Like

There are quite a few changes this country has to make in order to catch up to the other industrialized countries in terms caring for our citizens and workers.  At present, everything in the U.S. is skewed in favor of corporations, not workers, and every single change suggested to better conditions is decried as "bad for business!!!"  Raising the minimum wage to a living wage will drive companies out of business, providing health insurance will drive companies out of business, now providing paid sick leave will drive companies out of business.  On the other hand, the same people who yell and scream in objection to these changes will yell and scream and denigrate anyone who has a rough time surviving in the workl who has to turn to their government for assistance.  Yup, this country has a looooooong way to go to compete with the other industrialized countries in terms of being human.

makfan
makfan

@SuzanneLurie It's a culture, though. Look at the airline business. The managers use bankruptcy to drive costs down, and complain bitterly about the expensive flight attendants and pilots, even with work rules where they don't collect any pay for time spent sitting at the airport or even before the flight departs the gate.  

But the thing is, the airlines continue to lose money, in part because customers are totally price sensitive. An airline that wants to pay its people a little better needs to charge higher fares. Potential passengers see those fares and buy from the other airlines that pay people less.  We also flock to places like Wal-Mart that buy everything overseas because it does help drive down the prices but it also leads to fewer manufacturing jobs and more low-paid service jobs.