Even a Mild Outbreak is a Major Problem for Workers Without Paid Sick Days

For the 60 million Americans without paid sick leave, calling in sick with swine flu can mean forfeiting pay or even losing their jobs. So instead, many will choose to go to work and spread the disease.
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As the number of Americans getting H1N1 climbs, millions of Americans have called in sick, stayed home, and gotten better -- or taken care of their sick children -- without much fanfare. But the 60 million Americans who do not have any paid sick leave do not have that option. Calling in sick means forfeiting pay or even losing their jobs. So instead, many will choose to go to work, further spreading the disease and prolonging their illness.

Three out of four "low-wage" workers in the United States have no sick leave. And 94 million workers cannot use sick leave to care for sick family members.

The fact that tens of millions of Americans do not have any paid sick days is a sad state of affairs in normal times. In a pandemic so ubiquitous it's worthy of being named a national emergency by the President of the United States, it's foolhardy.

This week, National Public Radio reported on the realities of working without sick leave benefits during a pandemic. They spoke to Marcy from Southern California, who admitted that she goes to work when she's sick, even if her illness is infectious. She told listeners, "I'm conflicted, you know, because I don't want other people who get what I have. You know, I really don't... I bring hand sanitizer and I try not to touch things that people - other people use, but I still come in because paying the bills to me is more important. You know, I don't really have a choice."

Marcy's right. She won't have a choice about staying home until U.S. sick leave policies are changed. Some members of Congress have tried for years to address the situation, but real action has yet to be taken. Rep. Rosa De Lauro (D-CT) and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) introduced the Healthy Families Act this year, which would require businesses with more than 15 employees to provide workers with up to seven paid sick days every year. The bill would also ensure workers are not penalized for getting themselves or their kids vaccinated during the work day.

With H1N1 all around us, reminding us why sick leave is so essential, it's time for Congress to pass these common sense reforms, to make sure every employee in America can have piece of mind when they or their children get sick.

America's businesses don't need to wait for Congress to act. Employers can step up and provide sick leave to all their employees. Even providing tiered sick leave plans that allow for sick leave during an acute health crisis like the H1N1 outbreak would make a difference.

People shouldn't have to choose between protecting the health of their families and a paycheck, especially during a pandemic. The sick leave protections proposed in the Healthy Families Act are important for ensuring that all Americans, regardless of their economic status, can take time off when they or their kids get sick. But the proposed sick and family leave policies are also essential for containing the spread of infectious disease in America's places of work. Let's face it, no matter how tough the economy is right now, inviting H1N1 into the work place is simply bad for business.

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