Potential Swine Flu Redux Underscores The Need For Paid Sick Leave

Today, the Washington Post reported that “the United States and other northern countries have been racing to prepare for a second wave of swine flu virus.” “While flu viruses are notoriously capricious, making any firm predictions impossible, a new round could hit the Northern Hemisphere within weeks and lead to major disruptions in schools, workplaces and hospitals,” the Post noted. On Meet the Press yesterday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was asked if he anticipates any school closings in the fall due to swine flu and made the following observations:

The experts basically say if the child appears sick or if you appear sick, stay home until the symptoms go away…[R]emember, a lot of parents have to work and missing a day of work to take care of the kid or worse leaving the child home unsupervised puts the child in danger and hurts the family.

Watch it:

President Obama was in Mexico today to meet with Mexican President Felipe Calderon, and the virus was one of the topics of discussion. Reuters reported that “a senior Obama administration official said the goal was to ensure that the people of the three countries are fully informed about steps to mitigate the spread of the virus.” Indeed, flu concerns have “prompted a flurry of activity by federal, state and local officials, including intensifying flu virus monitoring and making plans to distribute vaccine and antiviral drugs and other treatments if necessary.”

All of this preparation is great, but it doesn’t address the simple fact that one of the most effective ways to combat the spread of a flu virus is to simply have sick people stay away from work and/or school. But this is made much more difficult due to the fact that America is alone in the industrialized world in not guaranteeing at least some paid sick leave for workers.

Almost 50 percent of private-sector workers in the U.S. have no paid sick days, including 76 percent of low-wage workers and 86 percent of food service workers. These workers can’t stay home to take care of themselves, and certainly can’t stay home to care for a sick child or a child whose school has been closed as a precaution against the flu.

There are currently two bills before Congress that could rectify this situation. One, the Healthy Families Act, would guarantee up to seven paid sick days (and would allow the use of sick days to care for ill family members). The provisions in the Healthy Families Act have also been placed into Rep. Lynn Woolsey’s (D-CA) Balancing Act of 2009, which incorporates a whole host of health and leave initiatives aimed at working families.

Three cities — San Francisco, Milwaukee and Washington — have taken matters into their own hands and “adopted legislation requiring employers to provide paid sick days to their employees.” Bloomberg has also expressed an openness to doing the same in New York City, for large employers. But with a second round of swine flu potentially coming this fall, it’s time for Congress to make guaranteed sick leave the law of the land.