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.

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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.