Sick people at work: A national epidemic

Business, Money, News

Everyone gets sick now and again. But not everybody gets to be sick without having to come into work, potentially making themselves sicker and spreading contagion to unsuspecting co-workers.

On Labor Day, President Obama signed an executive order requiring federal contractors to provide full- and part-time employees with an hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, for a total of up to seven days a year.

While 300,000 workers will benefit from this measure, if you are one of the 40 million employed Americans who still lack a single paid sick day, then you too would undoubtedly welcome a change in your companies’ policy.

Who Gets Paid Sick Leave Anyway?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in the private sector, about 81% of white-collar employees (professional workers and management level) receive paid sick leave. Contrast that with typically lower-wage jobs such as positions in natural resources, construction, and maintenance, where 53 percent receive paid sick days. Service sector workers have it even worse, at a 39 percent coverage rate.

For lower-income earners who lack this benefit, the result is obvious: many of the people who make our food, watch our children, and care for our health are forced to choose between their health—and that of the general public—and their family’s financial stability. Shockingly, at least 20 million Americans go to work ill every year because they lack sick leave.

And yet studies show that, for employers, allowing employees to take paid time off for illnesses leads to lower job turnover rates and a higher level of productivity when those workers are present. And workers with access to paid sick days are less likely to expose coworkers or customers to contagious illnesses or be injured on the job.

The Rest of the Developed World

The United States is the only developed economy in the world whose labor law does not ensure paid holidays, require employers to provide paid vacation time, or guarantee paid sick leave.

According to a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, all European countries are legally obligated to ensure 20 days of paid vacation per year, with some countries raising the bar to 25 or even 30 days.

In terms of paid sick leave, developed countries use a variety of policies: some require employers to completely cover the costs while other governments pay workers out of tax revenues. Still others use a hybrid model of employer mandates and social security. When the benefit kicks in and how long it will last tends to differ, but some form of protection exists in each country.

But even if the Unites States decides to try and catch up with the rest of the world, there’s another problem: actually getting workers to use their sick leave.

Overworked, Overstressed

Cultural factors have a role to play in how Americans view work and time off. Even if sick leave was transformed from a privilege that primarily benefits salaried, white-collar employees, into a guaranteed human right for all workers, would it actually be utilized?

In our stressful, workaholic culture, workers at many companies simply don’t feel comfortable taking time off, regardless of what policies are in place. In 2014, 41 percent of employees did not take any paid time off when they could have and, on average, failed to use a full 5 vacation days out of the measly 10 they were allotted.

There are a number of possible reasons why workers forego vacation time: guilt that they are harming their co-workers, fear that they’re hurting their careers, and the economic reality that they can’t afford a trip.

But paid sick days serve a fundamentally different role than vacation days.

Since illness is almost always out of our control, whether it is the common cold or something more serious like treatment for cancer, time off to rest is a necessity. Of course, there will always be some people who push through and go to work anyway.

But considering that nearly one quarter of adults in the U.S. have been fired or threatened with job loss for taking time off to recover from illness or care for a sick loved one, these situations do not involve a “choice” in the same way that one “chooses” whether or not to go on vacation.

The Road Ahead

Similar to Obama’s 2014 executive order that raised the minimum wage to $10.10 for employees of federal contractors, the hope is that the measure to expand sick leave will cause a ripple effect in Congress, state and local governments, and within the private sector.

There are signs that Obama is lending support to a growing trend: In the past two years, three states and 15 municipalities have passed laws mandating paid sick leave, including California, Massachusetts, and major cities like Philadelphia and Oakland. In Connecticut, a state that mandated paid sick days back in 2011, a recent study showed more than three-quarters of employers were supportive of the law after observing decreases in the spread of illnesses and increased morale among workers.

Since employees, employers, and the general public all seem to benefit from expanded paid sick leave, we should learn how to work around culturally ingrained behavior, and instead let sound economics drive policy decisions.

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