Flu Rate Would Decline Significantly If The U.S. Mandated Paid Sick Leave

A new study offers more compelling evidence that America should do this.

Here’s an incredibly compelling reason for the United States to pass a paid sick leave law: If we did, flu rates in the country would decrease by at least 5 percent, estimates a new working paper from economists at Cornell and the Swiss Economic Institute.

“When you mandate paid sick leave, infection rates go down,” Nicolas R. Ziebarth, the Cornell economist who co-authored the paper, told The Huffington Post. “You have less people going to work sick, spreading diseases.”

Opponents of government-mandated leave like to say that forcing companies to pay workers when they’re ill is a "job killer." There’s little evidence to support that notion. Still, this study offers an even more striking counterargument. Failing to give workers time off when they’re sick may actually be a people killer.

Thousands of Americans die every year from the flu, according to the CDC. The agency recommends that people stay home when they're sick with the flu, but doesn't have a recommendation on sick leave policy, a CDC rep told HuffPost.

About 5-20 percent of Americans get the flu each year, costing the country about $87 billion annually, according to estimates cited by the CDC. The agency recommends the flu vaccine as the first and best way to prevent the flu.

Yet the U.S. stubbornly refuses to pass a paid sick leave law. We are the only wealthy nation in the world that does not mandate any form of paid sick time, instead leaving it up to employers. Only 53 percent of workers get paid sick leave, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data cited by the White House, which is pushing for a law.

Ziebarth and his co-author looked at flu rates in the seven U.S. cities that recently implemented paid sick leave laws. Rates of infection in those places declined considerably -- in some places by as much as 20 percent -- after the laws went into effect, according to their analysis of data from Google Flu Trends.

The economists extrapolated their findings nationwide, using Labor Department data that shows only about half the country's workers have paid sick time. They relied on Google because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t track influenza data at the city level, Ziebarth said.

The paper, recently published online but still undergoing peer review, is among the first to examine what happens to public health after such laws are passed.

As you’d expect, the sick leave picture is worst for low-income, part-time and service-industry workers. Just 34 percent of the workers at the bottom get paid sick leave, compared to 87 percent at the top, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Forty-five percent of service-sector workers -- think fast-food cashiers and waitresses -- have paid sick leave.

More than half of the workers in the food industry go to work sick, according to a survey, released Monday, of workers at farms, ranches and restaurants, and others who prepare things for Americans to eat.

Forty-five percent of those surveyed said they work while sick because they can’t afford to lose the money -- a phenomenon Ziebarth and his co-author call “contagious presenteeism.” Sick people come to work and infect their co-workers, spreading disease. Sick parents without paid leave are also more likely to send their sick kids to school to infect other children.

“The specific occupations that need it the most, don’t have sick leave,” Jeff Hayes, study director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, told HuffPost. “It’s people that are right in your face when they’re doing their job," said Hayes.

The movement for paid sick leave has been gaining momentum since San Francisco passed a paid sick leave law in 2007. Several other cities and states have followed, including Washington, D.C., Seattle, Philadelphia and New York City. Connecticut was the first to pass a statewide law in 2012. California, Massachusetts and Oregon followed in 2015, and more localities are expected to come on board in the next few years. Large employers are also starting to reconsider stingy policies.

Typically, most workers wind up using three paid sick days a year, said Hayes, who follows the studies on paid leave. “There are very few jobs out there that can’t be put off for a day or two," he said.

Paid sick leave also leads to increased employee retention, studies have shown. And, of course, it’s worth pointing out that sick workers aren’t that effective at their jobs.

Yet there’s been a good amount of pushback from business trade groups that don’t like the government telling them what to do. They argue that mandated sick leave would cost employers too much money and force job cuts. Some states are even looking to invalidate paid sick leave laws passed in their cities.

Part of the typical argument against paid sick leave is that workers will take advantage, and call in sick when they’re not ill. Ziebarth and others who advocate for paid leave said that’s not a big problem in the United States, where workers typically must earn paid sick leave based on tenure -- and they don't want to waste a limited resource.

In Connecticut, for example, workers get up to five days, earning one hour of paid sick leave for every 40 hours worked. And you can’t get a paid sick day until you’ve worked at least 680 hours.

An early analysis of the state’s law, which took effect in 2012, shows there was little negative impact on business and in fact, in some sectors -- hospitality and health services -- employment rose.

The costs to businesses for providing sick leave are relatively small, as Bloomberg View noted last year. It seems opponents are making more of a moral argument about the role of government mandates on business, the piece points out.

Yet isn’t it worth considering the ethics of allowing a preventable, occasionally fatal, illness to spread throughout the population -- with a disproportionate impact on lower-income people? Seems reasonable.

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