Sensible approach to flu scare makes no sense for many working Americans

President Obama last week advised Americans to take common sense precautions while the severity of the swine flu virus was still unknown, and just stay home from work if they weren’t feeling well.

Problem is, millions of Americans can’t just stay home because they’re under the weather. When EPI looked at corporate sick leave policies in 2007 it found that some 43% of all private-industry workers have no paid sick days. Rather than the common sense precaution the President advises, these workers have a more difficult choice of going to work sick or staying home without pay at the risk of losing their jobs. In this current climate of high unemployment and even higher job insecurity, workers without any formal sick leave are even less likely to risk taking a day off.

Even more problematic, access to time off for health reasons is especially rare in low-paying jobs. In a 2006 compensation survey, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 79% of those earning more than $29.47 per hour had sick time, but only 16% of those earning less than $7.38 an hour had the same benefit.

While the outbreak of swine flu, recently renamed the H1N1 flu, now appears to be spreading much more slowly than was initially feared, its spread has been extensive enough to keep thousands of kids out of school, in many cases for more than a week.  In Milwaukee, for instance, 21 schools are closed for two weeks. In Texas, almost 300,000 students were affected by school closings. Nationwide, 430 schools in 18 states were closed.

For working parents, finding a way to care for a sick child is particularly challenging. The Huffington Post, citing data from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research,  notes  that fewer  than one in three U.S. workers who do have sick leave are allowed to use that time to stay home and care for a sick child. It also argues that the lack of sick days among lower-income workers  means that many of  the people who could most easily spread their illness on the job such as low-paid restaurant workers, are the same ones who cannot stay home when they are contagious.

If spreading germs and job insecurity weren’t bad enough, this widespread lack of sick leave is just bad business, research has shown. This paper from Agenda for Shared Prosperity suggests that the typical company’s child care and sick leave policies date to a time of single-income families, when today, the most common type of family with children is the two-earner family, which is left scrambling whenever a child becomes sick. With no mandated sick leave, illness as well as childbirth can easily lead to income loss or job loss, and that results in high turnover for employers. Employers who moved to offer paid sick leave could more than recoup their investment in the form of reduced turnover.

See related work on Health