You’re sick, you stay home. For many of us, it’s a given that the paycheck still arrives. But for the estimated 57 million Americans who lack paid sick time, getting ill means losing income or coming to work contagious. It’s a particularly harsh predicament for low-wage workers, 81 percent of whom lack paid sick time, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families. When they have a sick child, these workers don’t just risk a day’s pay, but, potentially, their jobs if they stay home. It’s a burden that falls most heavily on women, who are more likely to be primary caregivers and twice as likely to be in the low-wage bracket, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Paid sick leave should be one of the top priorities in improving conditions for all workers, and especially for working families,” says Jody Heymann, MD, founder of the Institute for Health and Social Policy at McGill University and an adjunct professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. “Lacking paid sick leave is one of the biggest reasons people lose jobs, income and their homes.”
Paid sick time is not a drag on business. In contrast, multiple studies show, it saves costs, reduces turnover and boosts productivity. “Presenteeism” — in essence, being sick on the job — can cause a ripple affect of contagion: An employee with the flu, for instance, can infect ten others, says Heymann. Food-service workers, a group that widely lacks paid sick time and hence shows up to work ill, cause nearly half of stomach-bug outbreaks in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Plus, there are healthcare costs — both short- and long-term. There’s a domino effect when families lack paid sick time, Heymann says: Adults without paid sick time often skip the preventive care that would allow them to manage or prevent chronic conditions; children are less likely to get vaccinations and regular check-ups when parents lack paid time for doctor visits; and kids are more likely to be sent to school or daycare sick, exacerbating and spreading their illnesses. By contrast, a parent with paid sick time is five times more likely to stay home to care for a child, leading to the child’s faster and more complete recovery, according to Heymann.
Working mothers covet paid sick time. In a Working Mother Research Institute survey of more than 3,000 mothers, 51 percent ranked it as one of their three most important workplace benefits. It’s no accident that competitive employers have made it a priority. Nearly all of Working Mother’s 100 Best Companies offer paid sick time and/or paid time off which can be used for sick leave, and about half go further: They pay for flexible “care days” when employees can use time for their own illness or to attend to an ill child or relative.
This article was featured in the January 2012 issue of Working Mother Research Institute’s email newsletter, Working Mother Research Institute Essentials. To read additional stories from that issue, see the related content section above.