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Stay home when you’re sick – could it catch on?

Submitted by on Saturday, 2 May 2009 One Comment

If anything good can come out of the nationwide hypochondria of swine-flu panic, it’s  that the notion that if you’re sick, you should stay home finally could gain some traction.

The governor of California said it.

The U.S. education secretary said it.

The president of the United States said it.

Official enough for you now that it’s been elevated practically to the level of patriotic duty?

Problem is, no one is explaining how 57 million Americans without sick leave are supposed to stay home, though President Barack Obama did mention Friday that he’s asking businesses to support workers’ decisions by not firing them.

No one’s explaining either what working parents are supposed to do if schools are shut down, as more than 100 in the United States already have been.

For low-income families, the risk is even greater because they’re less likely to have sick leave and more likely to be living on the financial edge. So chances are, they’ll continue to do what they’ve always done – tough it out and punch the clock, because they can’t afford not to.

Restaurant workers, by the way, are the least likely to have sick leave. If  you’re among the panic-stricken, face mask-buying set, remember that the next time you dine out. Your waiter or chef might have dragged out of bed with a raging fever because there was no other option.

The sick-leave problem has actually gotten worse over the past two decades, with percentage of workers with the benefit peaking at 70 in 1985 and falling to 48 percent by 1998, according to statistics from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

The city of San Francisco broke ground three years ago when it became the first locality to require sick leave for all workers. The District of Columbia and the state of Wisconsin followed suit, but progress since then has stalled, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families.

It’s stalled solely because business has balked at it. In California, for example, despite polls showing that nearly three quarters of the state supports the idea, the state Senate killed a bill last year that would have created such a program.

Requiring sick leave would hurt workers more than it would help them, businesses said, by forcing owners to cut jobs or flee the state in fear of the legislation.

And workers get that, according to last year’s poll results.

“Voters appear to understand that providing paid sick days has some costs to businesses and consumers, but appear to have greater concerns about the public health benefits and are willing to support the proposed law regardless,” San Francisco Health Director Rajiv Bhatia said in a news release at the time.

What business don’t appear to understand is the cost of “presenteeism” – that’s when workers are on the job even though they’re sick and not functioning at peak capacity, not to mention infecting others as they struggle through their shifts.

Some studies have estimated that presenteeism actually costs businesses more than absenteeism.

Nationally, Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy and Connecticut Rep. Rose DeLauro plan to reintroduce the Healthy Families Act, paid sick leave legislation that failed to clear committee in either house last year.

Maybe it will fare better this year, now that both the political climate and the epidemic climates have changed and it’s our duty as Americans to stay home when we’re sick.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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One Comment »

  • Vanilla Cokehead said:

    well put, Debra.

    maybe the political and epidemiological climate will instill a new sense of social responsibility for corporate suits and business owners.