In light of the spread of swine flu — of which there are now 20 confirmed cases in the U.S. — the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has issued guidelines for staying healthy and preventing further proliferation of the disease. According to the guidelines:
Influenza is thought to spread mainly person-to-person through coughing or sneezing of infected people. If you get sick, CDC recommends that you stay home from work or school and limit contact with others to keep from infecting them.
That seems like incredibly prudent advice. Unfortunately, staying home due to illness is simply not possible for a large number of Americans.
Currently, nearly 50 percent of private-sector workers have no paid sick days. For low-income workers, the number jumps to 76 percent, and climbs to 86 percent for food service workers. These workers have to decide between the health of themselves and their co-workers, and the wages that they lose by staying home.
Clearly, sick employees going to work contributes to the spread of diseases like swine flu. But there is also an economic cost to ill employees going to work under any circumstances. According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, “when sick workers are on the job, it costs our national economy $180 billion annually in lost productivity. For employers, this costs an average of $255 per employee per year and exceeds the cost of absenteeism and medical and disability benefits.”
As Yelizavetta Kofman pointed out at the Huffington Post, “of the top 20 economies in the world, the United States is the only one that does not have a national standard for paid sick days.” This could be remedied by the Healthy Families Act, which Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) plan to reintroduce in Congress next month. The bill would “guarantee workers up to seven paid sick days a year to recover from an illness or care for a sick family member.” And if it helps prevent the spread of illnesses like swine flu, even better.