Flu Outbreak Prompts Fierce Debate Over Paid Sick Days

sick days flu season

By Jennifer Peltz

NEW YORK -- Sniffling, groggy and afraid she had caught the flu, Diana Zavala dragged herself in to work anyway for a day she felt she couldn't afford to miss.

A school speech therapist who works as an independent contractor, she doesn't have paid sick days. So the mother of two reported to work and hoped for the best - and was aching, shivering and coughing by the end of the day. She stayed home the next day, then loaded up on medicine and returned to work.

"It's a balancing act" between physical health and financial well-being, she said.

An unusually early and vigorous flu season is drawing attention to a cause that has scored victories but also hit roadblocks in recent years: mandatory paid sick leave for a third of civilian workers - more than 40 million people - who don't have it.

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Supporters and opponents are particularly watching New York City, where lawmakers are weighing a sick leave proposal amid a competitive mayoral race.

Pointing to a flu outbreak that the governor has called a public health emergency, dozens of doctors, nurses, lawmakers and activists - some in surgical masks - rallied Friday on the City Hall steps to call for passage of the measure, which has awaited a City Council vote for nearly three years. Two likely mayoral contenders have also pressed the point.

The flu spike is making people more aware of the argument for sick pay, said Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values at Work, which promotes paid sick time initiatives around the country. "There's people who say, 'OK, I get it - you don't want your server coughing on your food,'" she said.

Advocates have cast paid sick time as both a workforce issue akin to parental leave and "living wage" laws, and a public health priority.

But to some business owners, paid sick leave is an impractical and unfair burden for small operations. Critics also say the timing is bad, given the choppy economy and the hardships inflicted by Superstorm Sandy.

More: Survey: Craziest Excuses For Calling In Sick

Michael Sinensky, an owner of seven bars and restaurants around the city, was against the sick time proposal before Sandy. And after the storm shut down four of his restaurants for days or weeks, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars that his insurers have yet to pay, "we're in survival mode."

"We're at the point, right now, where we cannot afford additional social initiatives," said Sinensky, whose roughly 500 employees switch shifts if they can't work, an arrangement that some restaurateurs say benefits workers because paid sick time wouldn't include tips.

Employees without sick days are more likely to go to work with a contagious illness, send an ill child to school or day care and use hospital emergency rooms for care, according to a 2010 survey by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center. A 2011 study in the American Journal of Public Health estimated that a lack of sick time helped spread 5 million cases of flu-like illness during the 2009 swine flu outbreak.

To be sure, many employees entitled to sick time go to work ill anyway, out of dedication or at least a desire to project it. But the work-through-it ethic is shifting somewhat amid growing awareness about spreading sickness.

"Right now, where companies' incentives lie is butting right up against this concern over people coming into the workplace, infecting others and bringing productivity of a whole company down," said John A. Challenger, CEO of employer consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Paid sick day requirements are often popular in polls, but only four places have them: San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and the state of Connecticut. The specific provisions vary.

More: European Employers Have To Give Sick Workers More Vacation, Court Rules

Milwaukee voters approved a sick time requirement in 2008, but the state Legislature passed a law blocking it. Philadelphia's mayor vetoed a sick leave measure in 2011; lawmakers have since instituted a sick time requirement for businesses with city contracts. Voters rejected a paid sick day measure in Denver in 2011.

In New York, City Councilwoman Gale Brewer's proposal would require up to five paid sick days a year at businesses with at least five employees. It wouldn't include independent contractors, such as Zavala, who supports the idea nonetheless.

The idea boasts such supporters as feminist Gloria Steinem and "Sex and the City" actress Cynthia Nixon, as well as a majority of City Council members and a coalition of unions, women's groups and public health advocates. But it also faces influential opponents, including business groups, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who has virtually complete control over what matters come to a vote.

Quinn, who is expected to run for mayor, said she considers paid sick leave a worthy goal but doesn't think it would be wise to implement it in a sluggish economy. Two of her likely opponents, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and Comptroller John Liu, have reiterated calls for paid sick leave in light of the flu season.

While the debate plays out, Emilio Palaguachi is recovering from the flu and looking for a job. The father of four was abruptly fired without explanation earlier this month from his job at a deli after taking a day off to go to a doctor, he said. His former employer couldn't be reached by telephone.

"I needed work," Palaguachi said after Friday's City Hall rally, but "I needed to see the doctor because I'm sick."


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michelestruck

just another level that worker rights are being whittled away...... remember when you could support yourself and take care of your family on one paycheck? remember when things like vacations and second homes were actual dreams that hard work and savings would provide an opportunity to make come true? remember when you got health insurance covered by your company..... not paid half by them then the other half by you or you go without insurance..... since we bought the media's corporate sponsered bullcrap on how corrupt unions are, and how all company problems are because of unions being greedy, well what they didn't want you to understand is that when unions are no longer viable in the community there is no longer any competition in wages, so corporate america will do anything it can to get rid of unions so they dont have anyone to compete with and can pay very low wages, now elect representatives that will pave the way to strip away workers rights further and without unions for folks to turn to they take what they are given and hope to have a job next month, then have those same officials move to decrease the number of folks employed by state city and federal government and you have the perfect environment for corporate america to make mad amounts of money while stripping the worker of not only wages and benefits but any sense of job security.

July 09 2013 at 12:49 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
g.dice

I understand the fact that people might be taking advantage of it but at the same time, there are acually people who really need it and shouldn't have to be punished because of other people's stupidity. They should get the ones who always pretend their sick. Besides, I don't see whats the good in forcing sick people to work. It just gets the people around them including customers sick and the next thing you know the company willl be sued for lack of hygiene. Why would anyone want to go buy something at the store when you have sick people going around coughing on stuff. That isn't safe especially to people who are more at risk for getting it like kids and the elderly. I mean why keep sick people if they are just spreading the flu even more and getting more people sick? That's probably why the flu is still going around. Just saying...

January 23 2013 at 5:07 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
arenadood

Some companys allow you to do work at home if you are sick, that would be a nice option to offer some workers.

January 23 2013 at 11:54 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
dsh1007155

A "sick day" becomes a vacation day. It's that simple.

January 23 2013 at 10:42 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
charpist5

Sometimes you just have to deal with this life, and that is the main problem these days. People don't want to just suck it up. It is always the "paycheck collectors" who cry foul about small businesses not wanting to bankrupt themselves by providing freebie after freebie to employees. Sorry....it is just not realistic. Deal with it.

January 23 2013 at 9:58 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
SLK_H_H

Because it's a great idea for employees, especially at a restaurant (!), to bring whatever they have to work and share it with co-workers and customers. And a heads up to Mr Sinensky...If I am at one of your restaurants and I see someone who is visibly sick working? I will get up and walk out immediately. Do not pass go, do not pay the bill for food I will not eat. Do not EVER go back.

January 23 2013 at 8:12 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Lu Ann

My company had 1.5 paid sick days a month that one could accumulate. I was a one man team in an extremely overscheduled Lab, and was never given help. If I was off work (which was rare) for vacation or sick days, I would simply have to attempt to play catch up ...which was near impossible. I would work over for weeks & weeks, just to be able to take 5 days vacation.....then upon return, again be weeks and weeks behind. Our company gave freely with sick time, but actually using it, was frowned upon and used against us at year end evaluation time. We were forced because of work load, & evaluation fears to not use it....and had to work sick, thus passing our flu to the entire work force. So in actuallity, our sick time perks were NOT really perks!

January 23 2013 at 8:08 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
babebennet

Think about this....you're sick, you need the money to pay bills, you go to work sick, someone gets your cold while you're coughing and sneezing...maybe that someone gets really really sick. If you have to go to work sick wear a surgical mask. They are easy to wear and contain large coughs that would normally disperse in the air and infect someone else. Outside of staying home I can't think of anything else constructive.

January 23 2013 at 8:01 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
lifehub

Private business have every right in the book to structure their own sick days paid or not, according to the way they see fit. Employees are aware of this and sign on the dotted line when hired. Free and private enterpise trumps all.

January 23 2013 at 5:23 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
mail4warding

few, if any, of the posts I read here mention the abuse of sick leave (where employees call in sick, get a paid day off, and are not sick at all). In my experience, such abuse is fairly common and employees know employers don't have the time or wherewithal to challenge a day off here and there, even if inappropriate.

January 23 2013 at 2:22 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

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