Why Your Boss Might Be the Only Thing Between You and the Flu

If you really want to stop a flu pandemic, says Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, give people paid sick leave.
Doctors, small business owners, working families and children, and City Council members at New York City's City Hall calling for a vote on paid sick days. (Courtesy of Family Values @ Work)
Jan 28, 2013· 3 MIN READ
Ellen leads Family Values @ Work Consortium.

All over the media, we hear public health experts explain ways to limit the flu outbreak. Get a flu shot, they advise, wash your hands—and if you get the flu, stay home until 24 hours after your fever’s gone.

It makes sense. During the H1N1 flu, more than seven million people caught the bug from coworkers who came to the job sick.

The Most Vulnerable Pay a High Price for Flu Infection

But the recommendation to take a sick day is more complicated for 44 million people in this country who don’t earn any of these days. In fact, for many, including workers like my friend Denise, a cashier in Milwaukee, it’s a choice between a health crisis and a financial crisis. “Since I’d been sick twice this year—one day each time—I was told I’d be suspended for three days if I stayed home,” Denise said. “That amounted to about $240 before taxes. So even though I had the flu, it was go in or [stay home and] not make the rent. I sat as a cashier all day touching customers’ groceries. People kept asking me why I was working. All I could say was that my boss made me.”

Some management consultants acknowledge that sick workers may spread the flu to coworkers out of fear that they’ll be fired if they stay home to recover. “The economy is still on shaky ground and many workers continue to be worried about losing their jobs,” said John A. Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., an outplacement consulting firm. “Of course, this has significant negative consequences for the workplace.”

Post Your Symptoms at Flu Near You

The fear is real. University of Chicago researchers found nearly one in four workers reported that he/she or a family member had been fired, suspended, punished, or threatened with being fired for taking time off due to personal illness or to care for a sick child or other relative. And job loss isn’t the only fear. In this economy, who can afford to lose even one day’s pay? Ask the people who serve our food, clean our offices, and care for our young or elderly. They’re among those—half the workforce and three quarters of low-wage workers—who lack paid sick days.

As a Miami cook put it, “Every penny goes somewhere. I have no choice but to suck it up if I’m sick.”

More than one-third of flu cases are transmitted in schools and workplaces. Those same Chicago researchers asked respondents, “Have you ever had to go to work when you were sick with a contagious illness like the flu?” Nearly 70 percent of those lacking paid sick days answered, “Yes.”

Flu Is Packing a Punch Across the Nation

Studies show that when sick workers stay home, the number of people affected by pandemic flu can be reduced by 15 to 34 percent, according to Jonathan Heller, director of Human Impact Partners.

Public school teachers and nurses will tell you how often children come to school sick, or can’t get picked up if they fall ill during class because their parents have no paid sick time. They’ll describe the heartbreak of having a child say, “Please don’t call my mom. She’ll get in trouble if you do.” They’ll give you examples of kids—sometimes as young as eight years old—who miss school to care for a younger sibling.

To avoid the spread of germs, we have to ensure that no one will lose income or a job for staying home sick.

Corporate lobbyists want to rig the system so it works only for them. But from coast to coast, working people have created large and diverse coalitions —restaurant workers and restaurant owners, those who fight asthma and those who fight poverty, faith leaders and advocates for marriage equality and many more—who know that together we can change the rules so they work for everyone.

And from coast to coast we’re winning. In 2006, San Francisco established a paid sick leave policy that now gets favorable reviews from most employers. In 2007, Washington, D.C. followed suit. Milwaukee voted overwhelmingly for paid sick days in 2008 (Scott Walker and crew later axed it). In 2011, Connecticut became the first state to pass paid sick days, as did the city of Seattle; Philadelphia extended it to workers covered by the municipal living wage ordinance. Soon Philly’s City Council will vote again to cover everyone. Across the country, Portland’s City Council is moving a sick days bill right now. New York City and several states, including Massachusetts, Maryland, Vermont, and Washington, are all considering bills as well.

You can make a difference by telling elected officials what this policy means to you:

Take part for your kids: Make sure your child doesn’t have to sit next to a classmate with the flu whose mom or dad couldn’t risk staying home.

Take part for yourself: Even if you have paid sick days, you don’t want to be served flu with your fries.

In an economy where more and more families are living paycheck-to-paycheck, we need paid sick days to make sure that a public health crisis doesn’t become an economic crisis.

Have you had to go to work when you were ill because you had no paid sick leave? Did you fear losing your job? Do you know someone who's had to work when sick?

Ellen Bravo is the executive director of the Family Values @ Work Consortium.

Watch Family Values at Work's video about the Participant Media film "Contagion."

These are solely the author's opinions and do not represent those of TakePart, LLC or its affiliates.