Tuesday, January 22, 2013

On Unpaid Sick Days

Let's describe a worst-case scenario:

You work for a midsize company in a job you happen to love.  Because you chose the job out of love rather than money, you took a pay cut for it and cuts in benefits, including unpaid, rather than paid, sick days.  But you're young, healthy, and aren't concerned about getting sick.  After about 6 months, you begin to realize the pay cut has made a huge difference.  You are now living paycheck to paycheck, having used up your savings to make up the difference between what you were making before and what you make now.  This is a serious situation because you have a family that depends on you.  You begin to look for another job.

Meanwhile, the holidays come and go, and suddenly influenza is making headlines in your state.  Your wife and kids got their flu shots ages ago, but you simply forgot.  You're not concerned.  But....  One day, a co-worker drags herself into work looking like death warmed over and coughing.  She has the flu, so you avoid her as much as possible.  Unfortunately, she transfers the flu virus to everything she touches, coughs it into the air, and generally spreads her flu wealth around.  You suggest she go home and take care of herself, instead of exposing the whole office to the flu.  She wishes she could.  But she won't get paid for her sick days and she really needs the money.


In the next 3-4 days, everyone in the office comes down with the flu, including you.  Unfortunately, when you come into work, you are not only perpetuating the infection but also spreading it in other locations, to other people, as are your co-workers.  Productivity dives below zero.  Then one of your co-workers ends up in the hospital with complications.  He has an "underlying condition" which made him extremely vulnerable.  The infection has the upper hand, and sadly, your co-worker dies.  He was your age.

You're sick, too.  Should you stay home or go to work?  You won't be paid if you stay home and take care of yourself...and not spread the flu virus.  Your family has been vaccinated, so chances are they won't get sick.  Is money more important than your health and the health of the community?

Employer policy of unpaid sick days is a serious public health issue, especially during particularly virulent flu seasons like the one we have this year.  But it's not just about the flu.  Colds, upper respiratory infections or pneumonia can also wreak havoc.  The employer policy of unpaid sick days may exist to discourage people from taking sick days when they're not sick, or encourage employees to take excellent care of their health.  But the rude reality is, no matter how vigilant a person is in protecting himself against the flu or a cold or some other creeping crud, he still has a good chance of getting sick.  When an employer has a policy of unpaid sick days, that employer forces his employees into the position of choosing between money and their health.  No one should have to make that choice under any circumstances.

I have worked for a long time as a temp, and as a result, I have no benefits, including no paid sick days.  I have my own policy, however, regarding my health.  When I'm sick, I stay home until I've recovered enough that I'm no longer contagious, and I'm strong enough to work.  I think permanent fulltime and part-time employees need paid sick days, whether the payment is at full wages or some percentage of full wages.

If employers persist in not paying employees for sick days, they persist in creating the conditions for a public health crisis someday....

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