Lack Of Sick Leave Could Impact Spread Of Swine Flu

By CityTownInfo.com Staff
October 14, 2009

A significant percentage of employees have no sick leave--a fact that could have enormous ramifications as the H1N1 swine flu virus spreads throughout the country.

The Asheville Citizen-Times in North Carolina reports that according to the Labor Department, 34 percent of full-time and 72 percent of part-time U.S. workers don't receive paid sick leave. "Advising people to stay home from work if they come down with flu," notes the Citizen-Times, "is, in many cases, like advising them to take a pay cut."

Candace McKnight, who works as a cook at a restaurant, agrees."I definitely go to work, whether I'm sick or not," she said. "One time I had walking pneumonia and I went in. They made me go home."

Many employees also lack paid leave to care for their loved ones. New York's Elmira Star-Gazette reports that according to a phone survey of over 1,000 human resources personnel conducted this past summer by the Harvard School of Public Health, only 35 percent offered paid leave for workers to take of sick family members, and just 21 percent allowed paid time off to care for children forced to stay home if schools or daycare centers are closed.

"People nowadays are afraid they're going to lose their job, so they're going to come to work when they're sick," explained Laurie Scheben, human resources director at Catholic Charities of Broome County, who was quoted in the Star-Gazette. "There's also still a lot of loyalty. . .people care about their job."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently recommended that employers be more flexible with sick leave policies during an outbreak and consider having employees telecommute. "Planners should expect that there will be more people who are ill in the fall and winter as 2009 H1N1 outbreaks coincide with the seasonal influenza season," said the CDC, "and this level of absenteeism may impact business operations."

Sheben advised employers to cross-train workers on essential job functions so that businesses can continue to operate should key employees need to call in sick. But the Star-Gazette points out that widespread layoffs have resulted in many workers taking on additional responsibilities, making absences even more difficult to handle.

Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, is lobbying Congress for a law that would require employers to provide paid sick leave. The legislation currently has sponsors in the House and Senate, and the Senate health committee is expected to discuss the issues at an upcoming hearing about preparing for the swine flu virus. But lawmakers are not expected to vote on sick leave policies this year since health care reform is occupying so much time. In the meantime, paid sick leave is required by law in San Francisco, Milwaukee and Washington, D.C., and other cities and states are pushing for similar legislation.

"We have been saying for a long time how urgently needed this is," Ness told the Citizen-Times. "We said it before the H1N1 virus was so common in people's lives, and we will be saying this after the H1N1 virus plays itself out."

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