It’s Cold & Flu Season….Do You Have Paid Sick Days?

Not a day goes by lately that I don’t see some update or another on H1N1, or on the seasonal flu vaccine. It’s that time of year again. The National Partnership for Women and Families has a good site on supporting paid sick days, as both a worker justice issue and a public health concern. If you are a U.S. reader, visit their interactive map and find out about campaigns going on in your area. In Illinois, 46% of Illinois workers do not have paid sick days; that’s 2.3 million workers. Women Employed is leading the Illinois Paid Leave Coalition in support of the Healthy Workplace Act (HB 3665), state legislation that would:

  • allow employees to earn up to 7 paid sick days per year, accrued hourly for every 30 hours worked
  • provide leave for the employee’s own illness, to care for family members, or for medical appointments
  • both full-time and part-time workers qualify

On the federal front, the Healthy Families Act would offer the same thing nationwide—seven paid sick days per year, for the 48% of workers in the U.S. (and 80% of low-wage workers) who do not have them.

Expensive? Not according to a study conducted by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

9 to 5, a national organization of working women, has an action alert on this issue, with sample letters to the editor for local activism.

Let’s face it, we’ve all gone to work sick. That’s where we catch most of our illnesses—at work, because others are doing the same thing. And those of us with kids—well, those classrooms start resembling a sick ward around November (my daughter’s school had a notable number out for a couple of weeks last winter; it’s a Title I school, so most of the parents are low-income with no sick leave). It doesn’t have to be this way.

Lu Lutta Continua


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14 comments for “It’s Cold & Flu Season….Do You Have Paid Sick Days?

  1. Flamethorn
    September 17, 2009 at 7:10 am

    No, I don’t have paid sick days. I work in tech support for a large cable company, and if I get sick, even if I am completely incapacitated, or in a coma or whatever, there are no sick days. There are vacation days, but then if I get sick I have no vacation left, and there are “personal” days which have to be begged for and can be denied on a whim.
    If the swine flu gets into the call center where I work, *everyone* is going to get it. We will not be sent home, or allowed to leave, until some corporate drone thousands of miles away decides it might not be a great idea to force us all to walk into a plague pit.
    The policy is, pretty much officially, “don’t get sick.” Period.

  2. Anonymous for now
    September 17, 2009 at 8:50 am

    As a bottom-rung hourly retail worker at a multinational chain, I am not eligible for sick pay. Ever. (Only hourly non-retail and salaried workers are.) It’s better than my previous jobs because it offers private health insurance, which means that if I work there long enough I will be able to see a dentist and get new glasses and have prescription drugs covered. (No, the Canadian health system doesn’t cover everything.) But still…here I am, aches & pains & stuffed-up head & cough, about to go into work.

    I also have depression, which means I regularly have appointments with doctors and counsellors. But I need to make those appointments further in advance than I get my schedule. There’s no guarantee I can even get the time off—it’s purely at the whim of my supervisor. Aaaargh!

    We need sick pay for everyone, put down in law, just like the minimum wage and meal breaks. For those of us who are not guaranteed anything more than the minimum—let’s raise the minimum!

  3. September 17, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    *hollow laugh*
    I don’t get sick days. I’m a truck driver, I’m not allowed to get sick.
    My dispatcher questioned my need to be out when I was in Emergency Room, being admitted to the hospital so I could be treated for systemic cellulitis and not DIE.

    When I explained that if I died of this stuff, he would be far more put out finding another permanent driver than letting me have a week off to recover, he saw the light. (I understand he had huge logistics issues, but dude!)

    Labor rules don’t apply to farm workers and truckers.

  4. Kat
    September 17, 2009 at 5:10 pm

    I am very lucky because I have paid time off (PTO) hours that I accrue throughout the year, and I work for a company that allows me to use those at my discretion (with some consideration for workload, but nothing that keeps me from feeling like I can use them when needed). They also have a very proactive approach to safety in general, and in response the current flu situation have come up with a “pandemic response plans”. They have encouraged people to feel empowered to use their PTO to stay home when they feel they are sick. They have also encouraged people to work from home when needed. On Tuesday, my son’s school called for me to pick him up from school — he had an ear infection. I worked from home on Tuesday with him. On Wednesday, I started feeling sick and stayed home. Last night, the doctor confirmed I had strep throat. I dropped my e-mail to supervisor that I needed to stay out of the office for another 24 hours until the antibiotics kicked in and I was no longer contagious. I got an e-mail from her thanking me for following my doctor’s orders and making sure I didn’t get my coworkers sick. I worked from home part of the day and rested the remainder of the day. I will go back to work tomorrow knowing my job is intact, that my son was cared for, that i was cared for, and that I was able to balance my PTO and working from home so that I could get paid and not left feeling that I lost the opportunity to ever take time off again.

    My company has also done safety briefings on keeping down the spread of viruses, provided antibacterial lotion througout the office, cancelled any business commitments that require travel to countries where outbreaks are, etc.

    I really commend my company for taking this approach. They are definitely doing their part to keep the spread of the virus down. More companies should realize that this is just good business.

    I also realize how incredibly lucky I am. I have worked for companies in the past that are just the opposite. I had one employer that wrote me up because I had the audacity to take a Monday off the day after I had a miscarriage.

    This company has my loyalty for a long time because of this. Its not always perfect, but the family/workload balance has been amazing for me.

  5. Sailorman
    September 18, 2009 at 10:19 am

    It’s hard to resolve because the interests are in conflict. As a group we want sick people to go home. As individuals, we want to go to work.

    I’ve worked for companies who gave us no sick days. People came to work sick. Nobody wanted to give up their paycheck to save other workers.

    I’ve worked for companies who gave us sick days. Some people stayed home sick, but most people came to work sick anyway: either they wanted to save their sick days for worse illnesses (which never seemed to happen) or they wanted to save their sick days for use as “illegal” vacation days. (If you give people sick days and trust them to self-monitor when it is needed, then a huge number will just treat them as vacation days… but without scheduling them in advance. Sick days always seem to be on Mondays or Fridays, never Wednesdays.)

    I’ve also worked for companies who gave us extra “unassigned” days and expected us to do our own balancing between vacation days and sick days. In those companies, everyone used the unassigned days for vacation and just came to work sick anyway, pretty much like the example above.

    I know that sounds cynical. But in the end, it has always seemed to me that it was sort of a tragedy of the commons. There will always be a lot of workers who simply don’t care if they make other people sick; they are out to get the most possible free time/money/whatever and they will do what they want.

    So as a result, not only does group behavior screw the other employees (since you work sick anyway) but it also screws the employer (it’s very expensive to have employees skip work–it’s worth it if theyre sick, but not if they are healthy.)

    Since sick days don’t really benefit the employer or most of the workers, there’s less incentive to give them at all.

    • September 18, 2009 at 6:39 pm

      Sailorman — I have witnessed the behavior that you reference. Hell, I’ve engaged in it. But let me ask, did you ever consider that such behavior might have something to do with:

      a) a low number of sick days to start out with — i.e. people would not feel the need to “save” sick days if they weren’t constantly fearful that they might run out (I don’t know, maybe I’m particularly unhealthy or something, but 7 days a year has never struck me as a lot, and so yes, I’ve gone to work sick because I actually have run out.)

      b) a ridiculously low number of vacation days, particularly compared with the rest of the world. Vacation days do actually benefit employers, because a rested and non-burned out employee is a happy and productive employee. The problem is that in the U.S., no one cares about that and is only interested in immediate profit, and have few things they are less concerned about than their workers’ mental health. There will always be someone being irresponsible — but whenever I’ve taken a sick day when I wasn’t “really sick,” it was because I fucking needed a day off.

  6. Kat
    September 18, 2009 at 11:22 am

    I work for a small business and don’t have any pad sick days, personal days, or vacation days. I don’t even get paid on vacations I don’t want to take, like Christmas. We used to have insurance benefits, but it just got too expensive and they just dropped that. My partner also works for a small business that offers no paid time off or insurance.

    Essentially, we can’t afford to be sick, especially not with something that would require medical care.

  7. Tlönista
    September 18, 2009 at 6:32 pm

    On the contrary, Sailorman, at least in some cases paid sick days are in everyone’s interest.

    Between 20 per cent and 40 per cent of food-borne illnesses in restaurants can be traced to sick food handlers who transfer bacteria to diners through the food they prepare, said McKeown [Toronto’s medical officer of health].

    “Food handlers, in many cases, have an incentive to come to work when they’re sick,” he said. “If they don’t, they won’t get paid and they may even be concerned about losing their jobs. I think it’s in the public interest for a food handler who is vomiting with diarrhea not to be preparing food in a restaurant.”

    (The Toronto Star, April 2009)

    It can be easy to come to work sick if you have an indoor 9-5 desk job; for others—who work on their feet all day, or outdoors, or doing heavy physical labour, or weird shifts—not so much.

    Also: I’m the one making your morning cup of coffee. Do you really want me doing this while I’m down with something highly infectious?

  8. K
    September 18, 2009 at 6:57 pm

    but whenever I’ve taken a sick day when I wasn’t “really sick,” it was because I fucking needed a day off.

    Oh, thank you, Cara. Exactly.

    And, we wouldn’t have this but-you-aren’t-REALLY-sick nonsense if we considered mental health on par with and as important to maintain as physical health. Not separate and distinct from, not “less real.”

    • September 18, 2009 at 7:03 pm

      And cosigning on K’s follow up! YES.

  9. September 18, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    I’ve had the opposite of SailorMan’s experience. I work in a place where, as far as I know, there isn’t technically a limit on the number of sick days you’re allowed to take. I haven’t noticed anyone abusing it. Of course if you take a week of sick days and go to the Bahamas someone is going to notice and you’ll be in trouble, but people aren’t breathing down your neck about your sick-day limits. We’re also a pretty busy place, and so if you take a sick day, the next day you’re at the office will be a lto busier — that’s a disincentive in itself. But as far as I can tell, most people come to work every single day — unless they’re sick and then they stay home. I’m sure there are people who use sick days to take a long weekend — or who use them as mental-health days — but I haven’t had anyone do that when we’ve been working on projects together, so if people are doing it, my guess is that they’re choosing days when they aren’t busy anyway. And I could honestly care less when it comes to a situation where it’s not negatively impacting anyone else.

  10. Bagelsan
    September 19, 2009 at 2:29 am

    And, we wouldn’t have this but-you-aren’t-REALLY-sick nonsense if we considered mental health on par with and as important to maintain as physical health. Not separate and distinct from, not “less real.”

    I’ve definitely taken a few of that brand of “sick” day — days where I just can’t bear to leave my room and interact with other humans for 8-10 hours in a row.

    I’m really lucky though; I’m currently at a university attached to a few hospitals and we’ve been told that if we get sick at all STAY THE FUCK HOME

  11. Bagelsan
    September 19, 2009 at 2:31 am

    (eep, posted too soon)

    so that we don’t kill all the people on campus. Especially with all the H1N1 no one wants to take chances.

  12. Julie
    September 19, 2009 at 5:33 pm

    I had paid sick days when I worked full-time, but right now I only work about 15 hours a week, so I don’t have them. I’m lucky in that my job is pretty flexible, so I can go another day or work at home, but if there isn’t another time to do it, I just have to give up the hours. My company is really fantastic about sick time when you work full time and we are encouraged to stay home if we are sick. One problem that hasn’t been mentioned yet, I know a lot of parents (including myself!) who come to work sick because we have to save our sick time for when the kids are sick, which tends to happen more frequently. I’m guilty of it in school too- if I have a class with an attendance policy I tend to come sick because I just know one of my kids is going to get sick and I’m going to miss class because of it. I have classes that I’m not allowed to miss more than one, and my daughter had a kidney stone this week that required me to be at home with her- what am I supposed to do if I get sick? If I don’t go to class, I get points taken off my average but if I do go to class I risk getting my classmates sick and spreading it around the campus. It’s a no win situation.
    As far as restaurants, that’s where my husband works and it is awful. He has gone to work throwing up because he couldn’t find coverage and his boss just doesn’t care. If the kids get sick, he can rarely get time off and it falls to me to figure out because while I’m in school, we depend more on his income than mine. It sucks. He technically gets sick time, but it’s only half the number of hours he typically works, so he gets 25 hours a year, which is two and a half days. It’s ridiculous.

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