Opinion

GUEST OP: To fight swine flu, take a paid sick day and call me in the morning

In light of the outbreak of swine flu virus in Mexico – and the 286 confirmed cases, so far, in the United States – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that “to stay healthy” people should cover their mouths with a tissue when coughing or sneezing, wash their hands more often, and avoid touching their eyes, mouth or nose.

The CDC also recommends that if you feel sick, you should stay home from work, limiting contact with others to keep from infecting them. It’s that final recommendation that might prove the fatal flaw in health education efforts designed to avoid a swine flu pandemic in the United States.

Many American workers who feel ill can’t stay home from work. They must go to work anyway because so many – 57 million workers to be precise – don’t have a single paid sick day. Especially in this dismal economy, most workers cannot afford to help protect the public health by staying home when they are sick because doing so might mean that they lose a day’s pay, or even worse, their jobs.

Low-wage workers are the least likely workers to have jobs that allow them to earn paid sick days. What does this mean for an America in fear of a pandemic flu virus? It means restaurants, child care centers, nursing homes, hotels, public transit systems, schools and offices across the country could potentially be full of infected workers, who should be home in bed or at the doctor’s getting treatment, but will be on the job instead. It means that instead of containing and minimizing public health risks, we’ll be maximizing them. It means many sick workers could be making other workers – and the public – sick.

Coming to work sick doesn’t help employers either. Workers who must report to work when they are ill are less productive. They don’t save money for business; they add to the costs of doing business. The U.S. is the only industrialized nation that has no state or federal law requiring paid sick days. As a result, half of the workforce has none. In addition, 100 million workers lack a single paid sick day they can use to care for an ill child, spouse or parent. Not only do we lack a federal sick leave policy, San Francisco, the District of Columbia and Milwaukee are the only cities that require employers to provide paid sick days for all workers.

Most Americans, though, believe paid sick days should be a basic right guaranteed by law. Public opinion polls show that a majority consistently list paid sick days as “very important.” Allowing workers to take short breaks from their jobs when their health, or the health of their families, demands it, made sense to nearly 90 percent of people polled in 2007. This basic labor standard is feasible, affordable and is good public and workplace policy.

Sen. Ted Kennedy and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro are expected to re-introduce the Healthy Families Act in Congress this month. It would allow workers to earn up to seven paid sick days a year to care for themselves or their families. Women’s, labor, education, community and other organizations all support this proposal. Maybe this swine flu scare, along with the voices of the American people, will move our Congress to action. To fight the spread of disease and ensure the public health, a basic labor standard for paid sick days is the remedy.

Linda Meric is the executive director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women. She can be reached at 303-628-0925.

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