Businesses Can Avoid the High Cost of Workplace Injuries by Offering Earned Sick Days

December 18, 2012

By Liz Ben-Ishai

Add one more piece of evidence to the increasingly-difficult-to-ignore body of facts that suggests earned sick days – particularly for lower-wage workers – are crucial to our country’s economic success and families’ economic security. A new study  by health economist J. Paul Leigh shows that the economic cost of workplace injuries among low-wage workers amounted to more than $39 billion in 2010. The high cost of workplace injuries among low-wage workers is particularly striking in light of recent research demonstrating that there is a significant correlation between lack of paid sick leave and the incidence of nonfatal occupational injuries. A study by Abay Asfaw and colleagues, released earlier this year, showed that workers with paid sick leave were 28 percent less likely than those without leave to be injured. Given that 80 percent of workers making very low wages have no access to paid sick leave, the need to heed these findings on workplace injuries and sick leave is urgent.

This research reinforces what anyone who has experienced even a common cold intuitively knows: illness impairs our ability to protect ourselves and those around us from injury in the workplace. The authors of the study that found a staggering relationship between workplace injuries and the absence of paid sick days point out that “sick or stressed workers who continue to work are likely to take medications, experience sleep problems, or be fatigued.” Under the effects of fatigue and medications, these workers may make mistakes with devastating consequences.

The economic effects of increased workplace injury combined with the lack of paid sick days are borne by both workers and employers – but ultimately they have the effect of threatening the stability of the broader economy, which affects us all. As a policy brief on Dr. Leigh’s new study notes, low-wage workers are consumers, too: the money they spend in their communities, in shops or on local services, is vital to sustaining our economy. But low-wage workers often live on the edge of poverty. When they have to take a few unpaid days off of work to recover from a workplace injury, the dip in their paychecks may mean not being able to purchase groceries, pay the rent, or keep the lights on. Since workers’ compensation coverage of lost wages usually doesn’t kick in until workers have missed several days (and not all workers are covered by workers’ compensation, anyway), the likelihood of such wage loss in the event of injury is high. Even worse, taking those needed days off may result in workers losing their jobs, a catastrophic outcome for most families, and for the businesses they frequent.

Not only do businesses feel the effects of high rates of workplace injuries at their cash registers when consumer demand is affected, they also experience lost productivity, turnover, medical costs, and workers’ compensation costs, all of which affect the bottom line. In this vein, Asfaw et al. point out that their research adds to the growing evidence demonstrating to employers that “offering paid sick leave can be a profit maximizing strategy.” For example, if employers are self-insured for workers’ compensation or must pay higher premiums when more workers become injured, understanding the relationship between workplace injuries and paid sick leave can be eye-opening. Businesses simply can’t afford not to offer earned sick leave.

Many employers are already recognizing the value of offering paid sick days. Employers that offer their employees the chance to earn paid sick days find that they have a happier and healthier workforce. These effects readily translate into profits, with productivity rates and customer satisfaction increasing. Moreover, many business owners simply want to do the right thing – to treat their workers fairly and help workers’ keep their families secure and stable.

The link between workplace safety and paid sick days is just one more piece of evidence demonstrating why it makes sense for workers, businesses, and the economy to establish earned sick days as a basic labor standard. More research is needed to further flesh out this relationship, but more urgently, action is needed to carry on the momentum from those cities and states that have passed paid sick days legislation already – San Francisco, Seattle, D.C., and Connecticut – to those where no such standard exists.

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