How Lack of Sick Leave in U.S. Can Make Outbreaks Like Coronavirus Worse

  • One of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of illnesses is to encourage employees to stay home when they’re sick.
  • During the outbreak of H1N1 swine flu in 2009, an estimated 8 million workers contagious with H1N1 didn’t take time off of work.
  • This led to as many as 7 million additional cases of the virus.

The new coronavirus, now called COVID-19, has rapidly spread to more than 60,000 people. In the United States, there are now 15 cases of the disease.

Compared to the flu, which has already infected 36 million Americans since Oct. 1 of last year, the chance of getting COVID-19 in the United States is low.

That hasn’t stopped several U.S. companies from taking precautions, from implementing bans on work travel to China to asking employees to avoid handshakes, Recode reported.

Lack of sick leave in U.S.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of illnesses like COVID-19 or the flu is much simpler: Encourage employees to stay home when they’re sick.

But since the United States doesn’t have a national paid sick leave policy, taking a sick day remains a financial sacrifice for 32 million workers that lack paid sick leave benefits.

Without paid sick leave, workers are more likely to come into work sick, exposing their co-workers to an illness.

“Transmission of any viral illness (COVID-19, influenza) is increased when people congregate closely together. Because a work environment requires a significant amount of time spent together and indoors, there is a higher likelihood of passing on an illness,” said Dr. Adrian Cotton, chief of medical operations at Loma Linda University Health.

Cotton emphasized the importance of paid sick days in order to stop illnesses from spreading around the office.

“If an employee is sick, encourage them to stay home, but not at the cost of losing salary. People will still come into work even if they are sick and unproductive, since their priority is to get their paycheck,” Cotton told Healthline.

Inability to take paid sick days is tied to past outbreaks

Past outbreaks can give us a clue into how sick day policies can fuel the rapid spread of viruses.

During the outbreak of H1N1 swine flu in 2009, an estimated 8 million workers contagious with H1N1 did not take time off of work. This led to as many as 7 million additional cases of the virus.

The food industry, where 79 percent of workers don’t get sick leave — is another example of how illness could be prevented with policy change.

“The last thing you want is someone who’s been exposed to coronavirus or another illness coming into work and preparing your food and spreading that illness,” said Alex Baptiste, policy counsel for workplace programs at the National Partnership for Women & Families.

Instead of staying home, many food workers feel pressured to tough it out for the paycheck — or to not risk losing their job.

The CDC found that 53 percent of norovirus outbreaks could be traced back to ill food workers.

They lack time to protect themselves. Workers without paid sick days are less likely to get a flu shot — the best way to avoid catching the flu.

While Baptiste noted that businesses often say they cannot afford to provide paid sick leave, research has found that providing paid sick leave benefits helps businesses economically more than it hurts.

“This is a situation where both sides benefit,” she noted.

Part of that is due to presenteeism — or the lost productivity of employees that come into work sick. Data shows presenteeism costs the U.S. economy $160 billion annually.

“When you don’t have paid sick leave, you don’t have the time to get healthy, remain sick longer, spread it to other workers, and simply are not as productive as possible when you’re not feeling your best,” Baptiste explained.

“In some jurisdictions where sick leave has been in effect the longest, we’ve seen that sickness is less likely to spread when workers are able to take time off to take care of themselves,” she told Healthline.

The National Partnership for Women & Families believes that one of the most effective ways for companies to support employees and prevent illness is by “supporting paid sick days as a standalone benefit outside of just having one bucket of paid time off (PTO),” according to Baptiste.

“By providing dedicated paid sick leave time you’re adding to the work-life balance that every worker is after and deserves,” she stated.

Beyond offering paid sick leave, Cotton recommended offering a work-from-home policy, encouraging employees to wash their hands frequently, and providing tissues, disinfectant cleaner, and even free flu shots to maintain a healthier office environment.

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