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Common Dreams

Flu Outbreak + No Paid Sick Days, No Healthcare = Disaster

Andrea Germanos, staff writer

Photo: Sergio Alvarez

The flu outbreak sweeping the nation is putting the spotlight on how the lack of paid sick days and lack of national healthcare put public health further at risk.

If you have the flu, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services' site:

"you should stay home and follow your health care provider’s recommendations."

And the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC)

"recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or for other necessities."

Yet roughly 41.7 million workers in the US -- about one in three -- have no paid sick days, and getting medical care is out of reach for the millions of Americans who have no healthcare.

The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel described paid sick days as "the kind of pro-family policy that we should be able to take for granted in a civilized democracy."

But for the millions of workers without paid sick days, the ability to stay home from work for a day or more without pay is simply not an economic possibility, so they show up to work sick and risk infecting others.

Ellen Bravo, who directs Family Values @ Work, writes that workers showing up sick is all too common as they may fear not only loss of wages but may also face the threat of losing their jobs for taking the day off:

The fear is real. University of Chicago researchers found nearly one in five workers reported that they or a family member had been fired, suspended, punished or threatened with being fired for taking time off due to personal illness or to care for a sick child or other relative.

And job loss isn't the only fear. In this economy, who can afford to lose even one day's pay?

Ask the people who serve our food, clean our offices, and care for our elderly. They're among those -- half the workforce and three fourths of low-wage workers -- who lack paid sick days.

As a Miami cook put it, "Every penny goes somewhere. I have no choice but to suck it up if I'm sick."

More than one-third of flu cases are transmitted in schools and workplaces. Those same Chicago researchers asked respondents, "Have you ever had to go to work when you were sick with a contagious illness like the flu?" Nearly 70 percent of those lacking paid sick days answered, "Yes."

In this economy, who can afford to lose even one day's pay?Single-payer advocate Donna Smith echoes Bravo, and tells Common Dreams that the CDC is completely out of touch with the plight of millions of workers, and blasts "unbridled profit-making" that comes above human needs:

Whenever I hear the head of the CDC or another public health spokesperson say that Americans ought to stay home when they get sick to avoid spreading the flu, I can’t help but think how out of touch with reality they must be to think most of us can do that. A huge number of working class people have no paid sick leave and they cannot afford to lose pay if they miss work time. Millions of others are afraid because if they dare to get sick and actually use the leave time, there will be consequences at the workplace that can range from angry co-workers who were called to fill in to angry bosses who question an employee’s work ethic. America is not a place where even a public health emergency stands in the way of unbridled profit-making potential. It might be more honest for the CDC head to suggest ways to work sick – at least that would be realistic

But Economist Barbara Morgan and Economic Policy Institute vice president Ross Eisenbrey say you only need to look at San Francisco to see how paid sick days are a wise investment:

The first jurisdiction to set a paid sick days standard was San Francisco, where employers have been required to offer paid leave since 2007. Surveys show workers’ lives improved, businesses succeeded, and two-thirds of employers support the city’s sick-days ordinance. Fears that the law would impede job growth were never realized. In fact, during the last five years, employment in San Francisco grew twice as fast as in neighboring counties that had no sick leave policy. San Francisco’s job growth was faster, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, even in the food service and hospitality sector, which is dominated by small businesses and seen as vulnerable to additional costs.

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