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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.

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When schools close, at least one parent often needs to stay home with a child. If the US were to close all its schools for a month, the cost to the US economy would be $10 billion to $47 billion, according to a Brookings Institution study.

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Businesses see a different problem – workers showing up when perhaps they should have stayed home. Presenteeism is a major problem, said 56 percent of human resources managers in a recent survey. Employees who come to work unwell tend to have lower productivity and may pass the virus to other workers, they say. The $180 billion hit the economy takes every year from presenteeism surpasses the costs of absenteeism, estimates the National Partnership for Women and Families in Washington.

In his swine flu emergency declaration Oct. 24, Obama urged larger businesses to designate company "flu monitors" to police cubicles and persuade workers showing symptoms to go home.

The burdens of these measures tend to fall hardest on low-income Americans, especially those in service industries such as restaurants and nursing care, and mall workers, where the share of workers without paid leave is relatively high.

"The flu epidemic really brings into sharp relief the kind of strain that this is putting on families," says Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families. "Our public officials are saying to people, 'If you feel sick, stay at home.' For millions of people, this is advice that's not simple to follow."

The Kaiser Family Foundation reported last year that half of workers with no paid sick leave chose to work when they were feeling unwell, rather than stay home.

So far, cities and states are taking the lead on confronting the issue.

Legislation in Maine would require large employers to give workers six paid sick days a year. Firms with fewer than 25 workers would give an hour of sick leave for every 80 hours worked. The law would apply to both full- and part-time workers.

"We are all being advised by our doctors to stay home if we're sick, but that is a cruel piece of advice if you don't have paid sick time," Maine Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell said recently.

The backdrop to the debate is the shift Obama has made in pandemic planning. By leaving decisions to the individual and focusing on prevention, he has won plaudits for approaching the pandemic with a balance of concern and context, says Mr. Rodwin, also a law professor at Suffolk University in Boston.

But businesses are pushing back. They say many firms can't afford to subsidize the government's strategy – especially if mandatory sick-leave laws are passed.

"Government is trying to do something that's well intentioned, but they have no idea what the effect is on a small-business owner," Jack Friedman of the Queens Chamber of Commerce in New York City told CNN last month.

"The difference between what we're offering and what the government is requiring us to offer could cost our business tens of thousands of dollars."