A Vicious New Strain Of Stomach Flu Shows The Importance Of Paid Sick Leave

Our guest blogger is Jane Farrell, a research assistant for economic policy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

It seems that the U.S. is set up for a double-whammy outbreak of illness this winter — after enduring one of the worst flu seasons in years, America now faces an especially vicious strain of the highly contagious norovirus, also known as the stomach flu. This strain, “GII.4 Sydney,” originated in Australia and just made the leap to the U.S. after tearing through Britain, France, and New Zealand.

Unfortunately, the United States has yet to employ one of its best defenses against spreading this illness and other contagions more widely: universal paid sick leave.

Norovirus causes stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. It is easily spread from person to person or through contaminated food or dirty surfaces. About 21 million Americans contract it annually and of those infected, approximately 70,000 are hospitalized and 800 die. The elderly and very young are especially at risk once infected.

According to the Centers for Disease Control:

Most (72 [51%]) of these GII.4 Sydney outbreaks resulted from direct person-to-person transmission; 29 (20%) were foodborne, one (1%) was waterborne, and the transmission mode was unknown in 39 (28%) of the outbreaks. Long-term–care facilities and restaurants were the most frequently reported settings, accounting for 91 (65%) and 18 (13%) of the GII.4 Sydney outbreaks, respectively.”

There is no vaccine for norovirus and no drug available to treat it.

Unfortunately, nearly 40 percent of U.S. workers who care for the elderly lack even a single paid sick day. While caregivers are presumably putting their patient’s health ahead of their own and staying home if they are sick, these oftentimes low-wage workers will suffer disproportionately if they miss even a day’s pay.

Moreover, only one-third of workers in service occupations have paid sick days. Nearly 80 percent of those working in the Leisure and Hospitality industry lack this benefit. This means that the people preparing restaurant meals or cleaning hotel rooms have good reason to come to work sick. The U.S.’s lack of paid sick leave is out of line line with all other highly developed nations.