Swine flu: Without paid sick leave, workers won't stay home
Many workers choose to work if they don't have paid sick leave. Now, partly because of swine flu, 15 states are considering laws to make paid sick leave mandatory.
Nearly half of all American workers do not have paid sick leave, and half of these are more likely to go to work feeling unwell – or send an ill child to school – rather than take an unpaid day off.Skip to next paragraph
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These findings threaten to undermine President Obama's effort to have anyone exhibiting swine-flu-like symptoms stay at home for as many as four days. The emphasis on prevention and individual responsibility is a welcome departure from the punitive government actions – such as quarantines and forced vaccinations – called for under previous pandemic-response plans, some health experts say.
But for the 48 percent of Americans without paid sick leave, the policy presents a choice between two equally undesirable options: stay at home and lose money or go to work despite government exhortations not to. Businesses, too, say the situation leads to so-called "presenteeism," or the act of going to work while unwell, costing the economy $180 million a year, by one estimate.
"Families shouldn't have to choose between staying healthy and making ends meet," Senator Dodd said in a statement.
Dodd had also championed the Healthy Families Act, which sought to mandate an hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked. But that bill is stalled in Congress.
In addition, 15 states have proposed mandatory sick-leave laws, and New York City is following the lead of San Francisco, Milwaukee, and Washington, D.C., which have passed some form of mandatory sick-leave measures.
The swine flu outbreak "ties back to the issue of employment rights and social support," says Marc Rodwin, author of "Medicine, Money and Morals." "There's a conflict between what's good for the public and what's good for the individual."
An estimated 100 million workers stand to lose pay if they follow Mr. Obama's advice and stay home. Some 60 million of these Americans – 48 percent of all US workers – have no sick leave at all, according to the independent Institute for Women's Policy Research, in Washington. (The US Labor Department put the figure at 43 percent in 2007.) Others lack flextime that would let them to stay home to care for family members. These data have helped to create momentum to reform labor laws. So have events on the ground.
Though the Obama administration has urged schools to stay open, 351 were closed in the third week of October because of swine flu. Some 600 have closed temporarily this school year, according to the Associated Press.