We can all be glad that swine flu is looking likely to top out at quite contagious rather than quite contagious and incredibly lethal. That's some good luck, in no small part because America isn't terribly well equipped to deal with contagious infections. In Contagion Nation, the Center for Economic and Policy Research lays out one of the reasons: Unlike most every developed country, America doesn't guarantee its workers paid sick days. As such, workers who think they might be getting sick frequently come to work anyway. They can't afford to forgo the day's paycheck. And then they get everyone else sick, too.
As CEPR points out, America is really alone in this boldly pro-contagion policy choice. "The U.S. is the only country among 22 countries ranked highly in terms of economic and human development that does not guarantee that workers receive paid sick days or paid sick leave," write the authors. "Under current U.S. labor law, employers are not required to provide short-term paid sick days or longer-term paid sick leave." This following graph tells the story well. Click for a larger version.
You're seeing two things here. The light blue line measures paid sick days. This is what you use if you need to take three days off because you have a fever. The dark blue line is paid sick leave. This is what you use if you need to take three months off because you have cancer. Every other country on the list offers at least one. Most offer both. The United States is alone in guaranteeing neither.
I'm working at a serious newspaper now and so I'm going to try to avoid words like "barbaric" to describe policy decisions I don't like. But this is certainly unnecessary. CEPR ends with the economic argument: "Each year millions of American workers go to work sick, lowering their own productivity and that of their coworkers and potentially spreading illness to their coworkers and customers." I'm willing to cut employers some slack: Many don't offer paid sick days because they don't think doing so will make them money. That is to say, they make marginally more money by letting their workers fall ill. That may be a good decision for the employer. But it's not good for the worker. And it's an appalling state of affairs. Residents of the world's richest nation should be able to stay home when they have the flu.
Chart source: Center for Economic and Policy Research
May 19, 2009; 10:05 AM ET
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