Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Can Anybody Afford to Take a Sick Day?

The swine flu epidemic that has been in the news has made us all sensitive to what we have to do to not only catch the disease but also to keep from spreading it to others. VP Joe Biden even went overboard by recommending that that we avoid subways and planes — a remark for which White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had to issue an apology.

But then there is the issue of whether we should go to work when we are sick as in this physician authored article
Do Everybody a Favor: Take a Sick Day.

If the swine flu epidemic ever swings into full gear, I will be prepared for the onslaught of ill patients. I will provide symptomatic relief when I can. And I will let them know it’s O.K. to be sick. It’s O.K. to stay home from work, pull up the covers and drink gallons of hot tea all day. Maybe for an entire week.

And believe me: if you show up to work sick these days, you are not going to earn anyone’s admiration.
Fair enough. We don’t want people coming to the workplace when they are sick and spreading the germs to us. And we especially don’t want sick people serving our food. If somebody is sick, make ‘em take a sick day!

But what about people who don’t have sick days? While we have the right not to be infected by those who show up to work sick, do we also have the right to tell that person that he or she must give up that day’s pay?

In extreme cases, people who call in sick can not only lose days of pay but also may not have a job to return to when they get well.

As I explain in a previous posting
Let's Work to Live!, many of us have a hard time even taking vacation time to enjoy time away from work let alone sick time.

With staffing cut to the bone in many places, many workers feel they have to bring their laptops and cell phones along on vacation to avoid having to dig out of a massive hole after their return to work.
Who is going to take over and do the work of an employee staying at home? Often the work will just pile up on the desk awaiting the worker’s return. Just thinking about that is often enough to make workers decide that the lesser evil is to show up at work even if they feel rotten — even if they do get paid sick days.

And while most professional salaried workers get paid sick days, those on the bottom of the economic food chain do not. Many of those people work in the restaurant industry. And for those whose incomes depend on tips, even sick pay to replace the nominal salary part of their wages wouldn’t be of much help.

As is often the case, America is different when it comes to paid sick days compared to
other countries.

At least 145 countries provide paid sick days for short- or long-term illnesses, with 127 providing a week or more annually. One hundred and two countries guarantee one month or more of paid sick days.

Many high-income economies require employers to provide paid sick days upwards of 10 days, including: Japan, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Singapore.
So it’s easy for liberals to suggest that the US also adopts a paid sick day policy for all of its workers like so many other countries. But it’s not so easy.

For one thing, there are employees who will take advantage of the system as in the Sick Call Excuse Generator or How to Call in Sick when You Just Need a Day Off. We have all heard of workers who say they need a “mental health day” and call off sick.

Some employers have tried to address this by simply lumping in vacation and sick days together under the category of Paid Time Off (PTO). Before, while many employers offered sick days, they did not specify how many. So many workers would simply take the number of days they needed and as long as they didn’t overdo it, there was no problem.

But when employers introduce a maximum of paid days off for either sickness or vacation, whether they like or not they are also introducing a minimum of sick days that if not taken for illness can then be taken as vacation days. And since many employers especially in the US hate the idea of giving out extra vacation days, that is not an easy pill for them to swallow.

An excellent article Sick Leave vs. Paid Time Off (PTO) points out another major problem that can occur under the PTO system.
Sick Employees Not Using Sick Leave
One of the most costly abuses of PTO is sick employees not using sick leave. Many employees begin to view all paid time off (PTO) as vacation time. So when they are sick, they don't want to spend any of their "vacation" time so they come to work and spread germs. This makes other workers ill and productivity drops as more and more of the work force gets sick.
Of course this all defeats one of the main purpose of sick days which is to protect others from getting sick!

Perhaps it is time for the US to finally get in step with the rest of the world and establish mandatory employer standards for sick days.
Despite the opportunity for abuse by some (as in any system) we need to recognize that sick days are not only a necessity for workers to get better but more importantly a public health issue to keep disease from spreading and making others sick.

When employees show up at work when they are obviously sick, companies need the compassion along with the common sense to make the boss send that person home to get better. And if the only way to make that work is to make sure that the employer will grant paid sick days, it is a price we need to pay!

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