June 2009

Paid Sick Days, a Luxury in the U.S.

The recent swine flu scare demonstrated that having to choose between you job or your health can have dire consequences.

By Heather Boushey


Most parents in the United States have to work. To be more precise, only three out of 10 children have a stay-at-home parent. But as the recent H1N1 flu outbreak underscored, this can have serious public health implications since many of those working parents simply do not have the right to stay home with a sick child.

“Twenty-two million working women don’t have a single paid sick day. That means they lose money any time they have to stay home to take care of their kids,’’ First Lady Michelle Obama said in a speech on May 7, at the eighth annual meeting of Corporate Voices for Working Families.

Mrs. Obama’s speech came on the heels of weeks of national worry over the possibility of a global flu pandemic. As hundreds of schools closed across the nation, parents struggled to sort out their options. For many families, the best choice was unclear: should they risk their job, or risk having their child catch the flu or spread it to other children?

In the U.S., unlike nearly every other nation, workers do not have the right to stay home if they are ill. Currently, nearly half of private-sector workers have no paid sick days. For low-income workers, the number jumps to 79 percent, and climbs to 85 percent for food service workers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has encouraged sick people to stay home from work or school as a precaution against spreading H1N1 flu. But, given the reality of the workplace, this is a fairly meaningless recommendation because the CDC’s request is not backed by the requirement that employers give employees the right to take a day off if they are sick.

President Obama encouraged employers to give their workers the time off, but did not require employers to do so. In his weekly address on May 2, he urged employers to “allow infected employees to take as many sick days as necessary.”

But, with more than four unemployed workers fighting over every job opening, what workers would risk their job over a fever or cough? A flu that is mild in one person may be lethal to another, so staying home is the best thing from a public health perspective. But in the midst of a global economic recession, staying home may not be the best prescription for the pocketbook.

Hopefully, employers are doing the right thing and not disciplining workers who are out sick as a result of the flu. But there’s no penalty for employers who choose not to pay workers in this situation, or who refuse workers any time off at all. The larger problem remains that every day, workers around the nation become ill or have a sick child who needs care, yet they do not have the right to stay home from work.

This is especially important because some diseases—like the flu—are spread mainly person-to-person. Consider this: nearly 9 out of 10 workers who serve you food do not have the right to job-protected paid sick days. If they get a headache and feel a little feverish, they may decide that they aren’t sick enough to warrant staying home if it means possibly losing their job. But, what about the toddler they are serving? The flu in that child might very well be deadly.

We now understand the damage a flu pandemic could have on an already-weak economy. Our economy cannot afford the drag of millions losing pay over the possibility that they might have the flu. To keep our economy moving, workers need their pay, along with their time off.

There could not be a more important moment for the Congress to guarantee every worker the right to job-protected paid sick days. A good place to start would be to move ahead on debate over the Healthy Families Act. The bill would allow workers to earn up to seven days of job-protected paid sick days each year.

There could be no clearer lesson from the H1N1 flu: ensuring the rights of workers is good for us all.


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Minh D Do
2009-09-28 19:57:59

I am agree with this decission,becausmy wife felt in this case with Cancer FMLA no pay and no unemployment benefit too!!! for three months zero income with out any help from emloyer and or unployment compensation.even Welfare denied give her assistant for food stamp or cash suport. my wife living in PA 19082. if the employee sick and FMLA more than one month how they get income help ? From where?this was my concerns.Because in United Sttes of America can not have the sick Employee to be come hungry like other Dictator country. Please give Congress think about this issue of my concerning. Thank you

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