I was exactly two weeks in to my very first job in TV news when it hit: the flu from hell. I woke up one morning with a fever, chills, and body aches like I hadn’t experienced in years. When I tried to call in sick to work, my manager reminded me of one crucial detail I’d forgotten:I didn’t have any paid sick days.
I thought it was an outrage. What was I supposed to do? Did that mean I had to come in, even though I felt as though I was on death’s door? I was confused and angry, not a good combination when you take into account that I was also delirious from the fever.
The Facts on Sick Time
The truth is, I wasn’t alone – at least not in the United States – when it came to having a job that didn’t give me paid sick leave. According to the Center for American Progress, 38 percent of private sector employees in the U.S. don’t have any paid sick days, although that number is substantially lower for full-time workers. Low-income workers, women, and Latinos are less likely to have paid sick leave than other segments of the population.
But this is where America is – pardon the pun -exceptional. We stand out from the rest of the industrialized world, in that we don’t have federally-mandated paid sick leave for our workers. Some smaller jurisdictions – including the state of Connecticut and the cities of San Francisco and Seattle – have required employers give their workers paid time off when they’re ill, but so far, the federal government hasn’t tackled this issue.
The Benefits of Paid Sick Days
In August 2012, the Orlando Sentinel published a study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research examining the benefits of paid sick time for workers in response to a ballot initiative that would require all Orange County employers to allow workers to earn paid sick days in exchange for hours worked. The study found that county employers would pay $33.8 million a year toward this paid sick time; however, because the result would be higher productivity on the job and reduced spreading of illnesses, they’d likely get just shy of $39 million back. That’s a net gain for the employers of just over $5 million annually – a win/win if I’ve ever seen one.
Any person who’s ever been able to take advantage of a company sick leave policy knows that both parties benefit. In my second job, where I had five paid sick days a year, I didn’t have to decide between my physical health and my financial wealth when calling in sick. As a result, I was always at the top of my game when I was at work. My coworkers also stayed home – knowing they were still earning a paycheck – when they were sick, meaning germs weren’t spread around the office as frequently; by comparison, my first job – where most of us didn’t have paid sick days – was a germaphobes worst nightmare.
Studies have also shown that workers who receive paid sick time are more likely to take advantage of other preventative health measures offered by their company, increasing the overall health – and, hence, productivity – of workers on the job.
The Case Against Sick Days
Of course, not everyone agrees that paid sick time is worth the investment. Some in the business community say laws requiring employers to provide paid time off for sick employees hampers the business environment, comparing it to yet another corporate tax. Personally, I think the data from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research refutes that claim, but not everyone agrees. In his 2012 piece for Time, Adam Cohen examined some of the push back the new law in Connecticut received:
“Opponents of the bill, on the other hand, argue that it is big government regulation and insist it will kill jobs. They also worry about where the law will go next. Critics ask what the state will mandate next: paid vacations and coffee breaks?”
Of course, the idea of paid sick days spawning a culture where paid coffee breaks are status quo is an example straight out of the theater of the absurd; it’s a gross exaggeration, made to make a larger point that workers should only be paid when they’re, well,working.
Reader, what do you think? Should the U.S. have a paid sick time policy for workers?