It sounded like the responsible course of action when President Obama and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged people with flu symptoms to stay at home so they do not infect others in the community — and to keep any sick children out of school as well. So far, the new swine flu virus has caused only mild disease in the United States, but it has spread through most of the country, making it likely that rising numbers of people will be developing symptoms.
But what are civic-minded workers to do when staying home will cost many their daily pay and, in a recession-plagued economy, possibly their jobs if employers become exasperated over their absence?
Roughly 60 million American workers have no paid sick leave, and only a minority can draw pay if they stay home with sick children. The lack of paid leave is especially acute in this country among low-wage workers, food-service workers and part-timers, among others.
Many other countries do better. According to Dr. Jody Heymann, director of the Institute for Health and Social Policy at McGill University, more than 160 countries ensure that all their citizens receive paid sick leave and more than 110 of them guarantee paid leave from the first day of illness.
If President Obama is serious about responsible action to control infectious disease threats, he should back legislation to grant Americans at least seven paid sick days a year — long enough to stay home until an influenza infection subsides. Then virtually all Americans could heed his advice, and we would all be safer.