The National Catholic Review
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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.

Comments

Mike Evans | 11/15/2009 - 2:43am

First, enact the right to unpaid sick leave. Then enact either a tax credit or unemployment claim for pay for sick leave where the employer does not provide any pay. Remember, this is where union contracts used to contain protections. Businesses who are not unionized or employ part-timers are not likely to voluntarily provide paid sick leave.

Michael Bindner | 11/14/2009 - 12:12am
Regarding the editorial on providing sick leave to all, I fear we are already too late to enact reform before everyone who is vulnerable to H1N1 is either vaccinated or exposed, which is a pity. This does not mean that using this epidemic to justify mandatory sick leave is a bad idea. There are two reasons why this is so.

Reason one is that the spectre of H5N1, or bird flu, is still present. Such a flu has proven to be much more fatal than H1N1. Enacting sick leave before bird flu hits will mean that those who died in H1N1 did not do so in vain. The spiritually exercised might even see H1N1 as a warning from God that we should do something now, because worse things can happen.

Reason two relates to health care reform. Even if almost everyone has insurance as the result of reform (and assuming that whatever comes out Conference Committee is acceptable to Rep. Stupak, we will), the whole effort will be short circuited if the newly insured continue to use emergency rooms for primary care because they cannot take off work when they or their children are sick. The only way to truly squeeze costs out of the system is to make sick leave universal, so that emergency room visits go down and with them, emergency room costs.

This won't be good for everyone. Some doctors and nurses will see less overtime. Hospitals will no longer bill as much for emergency room care, which helps cover overhead and subsidize new equipment and expansion. As it is, health care reform will damage those who make money from collecting on past due bills from the under and uninsured, from collection agencies to bankruptcy lawyers. It is no wonder that both health care reform and sick leave reform have their enemies.
TM Lutas | 11/13/2009 - 8:45pm

The higher your labor costs, the more attractive automating work looks for business owners and the less of these jobs will eventually be available. This will not catapult these no longer needed low wage service workers into better jobs, but into dignity destroying government dependence. 

The premise that business owners will lower their own bottom line in order to torture sick workers into coming into work may very well be true. There are all sorts of fools in the world.

In a capitalist system such enterprises will tend to fail, and they should fail for both economic reasons and for moral ones. So why should we add a law on top?

The loss due to the government regulation will reduce if not entirely eliminate the economic benefit and the lower number of jobs available will do the poor no favors. The only beneficiaries will be middle class government inspectors who will increase in numbers. And where's the social justice in advancing that class over the poor? 

John Nemia | 11/13/2009 - 5:06pm
When was last time the editorial staff ran a small business. When someone writes an editorial on subjects they don't understand and looks at from one side of the issue. They should not be allowed to publish.
Small business run on a very tight budget, are you willing to pay higher prices for eveything. Understand that that small business is competion with other business.
Do shop you by price? Would go to restaurant if there no waiter or waitress and you had to wait for someone to help you.
Every time you propose a to change they way bussiness is done even if it is for a good reason, you change the dynmaics and cost.

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