If the U.S. political leadership is serious about confronting the viral doomsday of H1N1, then part of any comprehensive response must be to improve the nation’s weak standards for worker sick leave. The United States lags far behind other industrialized nations in the time off allowed workers to recover from illnesses.
After decades of hard-won improvements in labor standards, it comes as a shock to learn that more than 57 million U.S. workers are entitled to no annual sick days at all. A high percentage of those workers are concentrated in service industry jobs, like restaurant and cafeteria work or child day care, where regular contact with the wider public is part of the job. Because of the nation’s Dickensian standards for worker sick leave, many low-income workers who cannot afford the economic penalty of a missed day’s wage simply go to work no matter how ill they feel. That pennywise and pound-foolish policy might easily turn an isolated case of H1N1 into a company-wide and perhaps community-wide outbreak.
In Contagion Nation, a report released last May, Washington’s Center for Economic and Policy Research reviewed 22 economically advanced nations and found that the United States was the only country that did not guarantee workers paid sick leave. There are obvious personal health and financial burdens placed on working Americans by the nation’s poor standards for sick leave, but the report suggests that significant economic costs accrue as well to employers who do not offer reasonable time off. “Workers who go to work while sick stay sick longer, lower their productivity as well as that of their coworkers, and can spread their illnesses to coworkers and customers,” the report said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may recommend that workers who are ill refrain from going to work, particularly during flu season, which even in an average year leads to 200,000 hospitalizations and more than 36,000 deaths. But that recommendation is meaningless if it is not backed by government mandates that allow workers some downtime from their employers.
Representative George Miller, the Democrat of California who is chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, introduced the Emergency Influenza Containment Act on Nov. 4. That measure would guarantee five paid sick days for workers sent home by their employers with a contagious illness. This is a rational stopgap during the current H1N1 crisis, but a comprehensive review of time-off policy for workers is also warranted. Employer reticence, especially in small firms, and the absence of federal or state standards for sick leave impose increasing hardship on workers and their families.
An astonishing number of Americans are working sick, without any leave. Workers are forced, because of our nation’s low standards, to forgo pay or miss necessary family activities: doctor visits, family therapy, teachers’ conferences or participation in civic life. A nationally legislated minimum sick leave plan would place an additional burden on small employers. Perhaps support mechanisms for such businesses could be integrated into the policy, but in the long run a broadly applied standard will level the competitive playing field, reduce turnover and improve productivity.
A mandated and comprehensive sick leave policy would also lead to better health for the nation’s children, since parents would be able to stay home to care for them. Contagion Nation reports that children who are ill recover faster and return to school sooner when their parents care for them than when they are left home alone or, worse, sent into day care, where their infections can spread. A parallel virtuous circle emerges for workers who are better able to care for family elders who may be sick.
From Rerum Novarum to Caritas in Veritate, the Catholic Church has reminded the state of its obligation to safeguard the interests of workers even as it has resisted the reduction of humanity to a mere cog in the economy. We are more than our jobs; we do not live only by the way we earn our bread. We are mothers and fathers, caregivers and engaged community members, and the right to time off to pursue a fully realized life is a requirement of human dignity. Surely that right extends to time off to allow us to recover from illness—or to help our loved ones do the same—without fear of financial penalty or career recrimination and without being reduced to hat-in-hand petitions to unreasonable employers.
In the United States, respect for family values frequently is observed more in the breach than in everyday reality. Creating a practical and generous baseline for sick leave is one simple way to replace some of the rhetoric with substance at the same time that it offers an eminently reasonable response to the current H1N1 crisis.