New analysis from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) provides support for what paid sick days advocates have long argued: lack of access to paid sick days means employees are more likely to go to work sick, spread contagious disease, prolong the effects of pandemic illness, and harm the public health.
IWPR’s recent briefing paper, Sick at Work: Infected Employees in the Workplace During the H1N1 Pandemic, analyzes illness and employment data from the Fall of 2009, during the height of the H1N1 pandemic. IWPR estimates that although almost 26 million working adults in the U.S. — about 18% of all U.S. employees — were infected with H1N1 from September through November 2009, only about 18 million took time away from work while infected. That leaves just under 8 million workers who went to work ill, spreading the flu to up to 7 million co-workers.
But that is not the end of the story. Workers in the private sector — where 40% lack access to paid, job-protected sick leave — were much more likely to show up for work sick. While over 90% of infected public sector employees (nearly all of whom have access to paid sick time) followed the CDC’s advice to stay home, only about 66% of private sector employees did the same. The result? Private sector employees infected more of their co-workers and, as a result, the pandemic may been prolonged in private workplaces. Extrapolating from IWPR’s data, the secondary costs of the pandemic — workplace inefficiency and low employee morale — would likely have been higher in the private sector as a steady stream of workers slogged to work sick for months on end.
In this economy, many sick workers cannot make the choice between getting better and getting paid. IWPR’s analysis confirms that a national paid sick days standard makes good sense, not just for the workers who would benefit most directly, but for their colleagues, their workplaces, and their communities.