Editor’s Note: In his weekly address to the nation May 2, a day after this essay was published, President Barack Obama called on employers to allow sick workers to take time off.
With more than 400 schools closed today due to the H1N1 flu virus, the Obama administration has yet to tell employers they should let parents stay home with their children without suffering pay loss or other penalties. What do we expect these parents to do? Most parents work–just three children in ten have a stay-at-home parent–and many do not have the right to paid sick days. Yet we keep hearing that if people don’t feel well, they shouldn’t go out and potentially give others H1N1.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is certainly correct to encourage sick people to stay home from work or school as a precaution to prevent the spread of the virus. But given the reality of the US workplace, this is a fairly meaningless recommendation. The reason: the CDC is not asking employers to give their employees the right to take a day off if they are sick.
Nor is President Obama. He appeared on television Thursday to encourage people to keep their children home from school but didn’t encourage employers to give their workers the time off. He recommended that parents and businesses think about contingency plans if their children have to stay home–but the act of thinking is not going to get a worker paid time off.
In the United States, unlike nearly every other nation, many workers do not have the right to stay home if they are ill. Nearly half of private-sector workers–57 million people–have no paid sick days. For low-income workers, the rate jumps to 76 percent; for food service workers, the rate is 86 percent. That’s a big problem now that the World Health Organization is warning we are probably facing a pandemic flu.
The CDC says the H1N1 flu is spreading person to person via the coughing or sneezing of infected people. But with more than four unemployed workers fighting over every job opening, what worker will decide to risk his or her job over a fever or cough? A flu that is mild in one person may be lethal to another, so staying home is the best thing for everyone.
But if you have to go to work, then you have to go to work. Nearly nine of ten workers who serve you food do not have the right to job-protected sick days. If they get headaches or feel a little feverish, they may decide that they aren’t really sick enough to warrant staying home if it means possibly losing their job. But what about the toddler sitting at the table they’re serving? The flu might very well be deadly to that child.
Many of the children whose schools have closed will end up at baby-sitters, in childcare centers, social programs, at the mall–which entirely defeats the purpose of trying to prevent H1N1’s spread. If parents were given paid time off, maybe they could afford to stay home.
This outbreak could not come at a worse time for our weakened economy; we cannot afford yet another disruption to economicdemand. We cannot afford the drag of millions of workers losing pay over the possibility that they might have the flu.
So why not give the CDC’s recommendations some bite? Sick people would stay home if they didn’t have to worry about losing their job or a day’s pay. There could not be a more important moment for the Obama administration and Congress to guarantee every worker paid sick days.
A good place to start is to move ahead on the debate over the Healthy Families Act. Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut, plan to reintroduce this legislation next month. The bill would guarantee workers as many as seven paid sick days a year to recover from an illness or care for a sick family member.
This is the kind of response needed to an incipient pandemic. We should be calling on everyone–even employers–to do their part to limit the spread of the flu.