40 Million American Workers Lack Paid Sick Leave — This is a Public Health Problem

ByKornelia Mazurczyk

The nation's recent flu epidemic has sparked a debate over paid sick days and whether or not they should be guaranteed by federal law for all Americans. As it turns out, there is only a narrow margin of U.S. employees that can boast such "benefits." The rest? Well, your choices are either to go to work when ill or to get fired. Is there any solution?

The facts are these: The United States is the only developed country that does not provide federal law requiring private companies to offer paid sick days. What does that mean exactly? It means that if you are lucky, you work for the U.S. government, which provides 13 paid sick days to employees per year, or you are one of the fortunate private-sector workers whose employers do so. If you are not – you are part of the 38%, or some 40 million American workers, who have to work while being sick and in pain or get fired. As if that weren't enough, the unitary problem affects broader and negative trend. As Shamus Khan writes in TIME, lack of paid sick days "is not just inhumane but a matter of public health."

The sick man infects colleagues and clients and therefore makes others ill. It is like a domino or a ripple effect. The worse situation here takes place in the hospitality and the food-service industries; two jobs with the most contact with the public. Over 76% of workers with the fear of losing their job are likely to show up to work sick. This is no doubt one of the grounds of the current influenza epidemic. So why we don't change it?  

First of all there is a fear that it will kill jobs. Employers don't realize that it is not a drag on business. Contrary, they have only little to lose and much to gain from granting paid sick days. As a study of Connecticut's policy mandating five days of sick leave shows (Connecticut is the only state in U.S. which provide workers such "benefit"), "full use of this leave would cost an employer only 0.4 percent of their sales revenue on average. Without paid sick days, employees come to work unhealthy, costing employers $160 billion per year due to lower productivity levels."

Secondly there is no one to fight for employees’ rights. You say labor unions? The fact is they have never been weaker than they are today, with decreasing membership and little public support. Maybe local municipalities can guarantee the talked-about rights? Of course it is possible but the scope of pro-change acts is often limited by the broad opposition and particular interests. It would take years of intense activities to alter attitude of all those groups.  

Considering the facts, it seems that there are three main alternatives for present American employees situation: one; everything will stay as it is, two; there will be a long-term change, or three; we'd have a quick solution from federal government by mandating proper law which "could save a billion dollars in medical costs" as the Center for American Progress estimates.

It is not definite which solution would be chosen but one is sure — something should be changed because millions are suffering and it is a huge shame to provide less employee rights than countries like poor Zimbabwe or the non-democratic Saudi Arabia.