Lack of Paid Sick Days Could Expand the H1N1 Problem

Sep 01, 2009

By Lexer Quamie

Government officials recently declared that, to help prevent spread of the H1N1 flu strain this fall, employers should encourage their sick employees to stay home.

In theory, this is sage advice. In practice, it's not that easy, especially for low-income workers who lack paid sick leave. For far too many workers, staying home to recover from illness means foregoing wages.   In fact, 77 percent of the lowest earning workers-nearly 24 million in the bottom wage quartile-do not have any paid sick days. The decision to stay home, for them, is not just a matter of taking care of their health. It's a matter of weighing whether they can afford to lose a day or more of income.

This presents a serious public health issue and raises larger policy questions.

The expected H1N1 infection rate for the fall is grim.  According to recent estimates, the H1N1 flu could infect as much as half the U.S. population, flooding hospitals with nearly 2 million patients and causing 30,000 to 90,000 deaths this fall and winter.  The administration is to be commended for encouraging a step that is vital in containing H1N1.  But its public health advice underscores one of the many reasons our nation needs laws that would allow all employees to earn paid sick time.

More than one-third of flu cases are transmitted in schools and workplaces.  Studies have shown that when sick workers stay home, the number of people affected by pandemic flu can be reduced 15 to 34 percent.

The promising news is that there is some movement in many states and at the federal level to establish a fair labor standard for paid sick days.  In May 2009, federal lawmakers introduced The Healthy Families Act, a bill that would provide all employees at companies with 15 or more employees the ability to earn paid sick and safe days (seven days for those who work full-time, less for those who work fewer hours) to care for themselves or their family members. Businesses, which need healthy, productive employees, and policymakers should support this pending legislation, so that all workers can afford to take necessary time off work should they or a family member catch the flu.

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