By Ellen Bravo
When my husband and I moved to Milwaukee in the early 80s, one of us needed a job with health insurance. I applied to be a word processor at the phone company. It was a union job with decent pay. But the person who offered me the position made one thing very clear: “You can’t be sick for five years,” she told me. “This is a public utility and we need everyone here.”
Anyone who’s worked in a place where being sick means no pay knows the outcome: people come to work sick, get sicker, stay sick longer, and make other people sick. We didn’t need scientific studies to tell us that’s self-defeating even for the company. No one works well when they’re sick and, inevitably, getting sicker will force people to be off the job longer. And as hard as I tried, I couldn’t train my young children to wait for the weekend to get an ear infection.
But studies do help influence policymakers, raise awareness among the general public and spark stories in the media. So those of us fighting hard to win policies that guarantee all workers can earn paid sick days were delighted to see a new paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research on their findings that the flu rate “decreases significantly” when employees earn paid sick days.
Among the many things Google compiles is flu data. The researchers used that data from 2003 to 2015 to examine what happened to influenza rates after various locations in the U.S. passed paid sick days laws. Turns out the general flu rate in places where workers earned paid sick days decreased 5.5 – 6.5 percent. Comprehensive laws in seven major U.S. cities, the researchers found, help prevent about 100 influenza-like infections per week for every 100,000 people.
The authors went on to define and test contagious presenteeism – that’s the formal term for people coming to work sick and spreading infectious diseases to co-workers and customers or clients. Their results match common sense and the experience of everyone who’s ever been in my shoes: when workers can follow doctor’s orders and stay home when they’re sick without risking their paycheck or their job, there’s a reduction in contagious presenteeism, fewer infections and lower influenza activity.
The American Academy of Pediatricians – and many other health care professionals – agree about the importance of a public policy like paid sick days. When we were fighting for paid sick days in Milwaukee, a pediatrician here described how devastated she felt after she told a young mother to keep her sick child home from child care. The woman followed those instructions — and got fired as a result. That pediatrician was rooting for passage of paid sick days so she never had to be in that situation again.
Thirty-four cities, states or counties across the country have now won such laws, and more are on the horizon. That means over 11 and a half million people can listen to their doctors and stay away from work when they have the flu. And thousands of others will avoid getting the flu as a result.
For some people, that’s a life-saving outcome. I remember Marianne Bellesorte’s testimony before the Philadelphia City Council when they were debating passage of a paid sick days ordinance. Between the first debate on the issue in City Council in 2011 and that hearing in 2015, Marianne, who led the local coalition, had gotten pregnant, gotten cancer, had chemo, had a baby, had surgery, more chemo and radiation.
“Paid time [in my workplace] meant …that when chemotherapy demolished my immune system to the point where I wasn’t even allowed near fresh flowers, I didn’t have to worry about coworkers bringing their illness to the office,” Marianne testified. “But because not everyone has earned sick days, I did have to worry about the cashier at the grocery store, the clerk at the drug store, and the servers at any restaurant I ate at.”
Thanks to Marianne and a host of other activists, Philadelphia is now among the locations where our movement has won paid sick days. The National Bureau of Economic Research study and common sense and our own experience tell us it’s high time to guarantee access to the entire nation by passing the Healthy Families Act.
Today is Women’s Equality Day, commemorating passage of the 19th amendment, which stopped denying women the vote – a right that continued being denied to Black women and many other women of color for decades and is still under attack today In addition to helping put people in office, voting is about holding them accountable once they’re there. The 96th anniversary of women’s suffrage is a great occasion to contact your legislator and share your own story of going to work sick or catching germs from someone who did.
Tell them it’s time to pass the Healthy Families Act, tell Congress to pass the act now (it will take only 2 minutes.)