Don’t Want Swine Flu with Lunch? Then Offer Paid Sick Leave

By Steven Hill, June 18, 2009, New York Daily News

The spread of the swine flu contagion has yet to reach scary “I Am Legend” proportions, but things are getting pretty hairy out there. The World Health Organization has declared a pandemic, the first flu pandemic in 41 years, as infections continue to climb in the United States, Europe, Australia, South America and elsewhere.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States has confirmed 45 deaths associated with swine flu among more than 17,500 cases reported. With the U.S. economy already reeling, workplaces also have been affected, causing President Obama to urge workers with flu symptoms to “stay home.”

But for far too many American workers, that is easier said than done. About 160 nations provide mandatory paid sick days, with 127 providing a week or more annually. Unfortunately the U.S. is not one of them, leaving some 60 million workers – 43% of the private industry labor force – without any paid sick days.

What that really means is that, in all these other countries, when you’re sick, they want you to stay home and take care of yourself. In the United States, when you’re sick we want you to report to work and infect your coworkers and customers.

Leaving aside the moral arguments, such a policy makes little economic sense. Coverage is missing most for many service sector and low-income workers who can least afford to self-subsidize their own sick leave. So when you go to a restaurant, or to your local grocery or office supply store, there’s a good chance that the employees handling your food or handing you your change don’t have any paid sick leave coverage. If they get sick, they probably cannot afford to stay home.

Care for some swine flu served with your French fries, anyone?

Who could be opposed to policy as sensible as making it possible for workers to stay home when they are sick? Business owners, that’s who. Owners of small companies argue that forcing them to offer paid sick days would be a costly mandate, especially at a time when businesses already are coping with a struggling economy.

Certainly that is an important consideration. But why is it that small businesses in over 100 nations around the world – including relatively poor or modestly wealthy nations like Croatia, Poland, New Zealand and many others – can afford paid sick leave for their employees, but American businesses cannot?

Dr. Jody Heymann, founder of the Harvard-based Project on Global Working Families and author of a global study on workplace policies, says the United States is only hurting itself.

“If you look at the most competitive economies in the world, all the others except the U.S. have these policies in place,” she says. Heymann and other advocates believe paid sick time should be an employment standard, just like the federal minimum wage.

Need more proof it can be done without hurting competitiveness? Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer – which is practically a small country unto itself – already provides paid sick days to employees who work more than 34 hours a week.

Here’s to hoping the swine flu pandemic is just the kick that policymakers need to lead other businesses to their senses. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) has introduced a bill that would require employers to provide their workers one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, up to a maximum of seven paid sick days a year. The benefit would be pro-rated for part-time workers, but unfortunately companies with fewer than 15 employees would be exempt, which makes little sense.

Still, it’s a start.

Candidate Barack Obama voiced strong support for legislation giving all American workers paid sick leave. But President Obama has made a habit of backtracking on things he said on the campaign trail. Perhaps the swine flu threat will prompt him, and the rest of Congress, to come to its senses.

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