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America's pro-flu labor laws


"About 40 percent of all private-sector workers do not receive paid sick days," reports the New York Times, "and as a result many of them cannot afford to stay home when they are ill. Even some companies that provide paid sick days have policies that make it difficult to call in sick, like giving demerits each time someone misses a day."

This isn't just inhumane policy. It's stupid policy. We're facing a new strain of flu that most have zero resistance against. Workers who fall ill but nevertheless have to ride the bus in to work and stock shelves and talk to co-workers and ride the bus home aren't just workers having a bad day, or workers at risk of getting really sick. They're contagious. They're spreading the flu to other workers, who will in turn be contagious, even to richer workers who do get sick days.

The downside is not simply that lots of people get the flu. It's that the flu has more opportunities to mutate into something more lethal, or more contagious. The reason public health officials urge people to stay home is to deny the illness opportunities to mutate, but the warnings of public health officials are nothing compared with the pressures of an employer that doesn't tolerate sick days. This, incidentally, is not a problem other countries will face. As this Center for Economic and Policy Research report explains, the United States is the only advanced economy in the world that doesn't guarantee its workers paid sick days.

Photo credit: By Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press

By Ezra Klein  |  November 3, 2009; 2:04 PM ET
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Ah yes, the anwer must be government regulation of sick days. Especially since increased government involvement is the reason why Europe's unemplyment rate is always lower and their productivity is always higher.

Posted by: MBP2 | November 3, 2009 2:28 PM | Report abuse

Sick days are not the same as days off. I can tell you, a lump sum of all-purpose time off only encourages folks to come in to work sick. I do it all the time.

And those places that are draconian about using "sick" time do the same thing. For example, there are women who need to take a day off around once a month, for obvious reasons. But then if such a woman gets sick, she has a serious problem because she's planning on taking something like ten sick days over the course of a year to start with!


Posted by: ajw_93 | November 3, 2009 2:42 PM | Report abuse

Only a national law will grant sick days as a public policy.

The essential problem is (even for school absences) that people cheat. Employers can't tell real sickness excuses from fake (without calling someone a liar, which is a potential hostile work environment suit).

So, I don't think it is so much the lost days of productivity that makes the employers rabid, as lack of trust in what people say (and do). When the deaths start occuring during the work day, maybe their attitude will change. Maybe. I wouldn't bet on it though. The bosses probably think that installing morgue refrigerators would be cheaper overall.

Even requiring a note from MD is stupid. The last place to go during an epidemic is to the MDs office or hospital ER. If you aren't sick, you greatly increase the probability you will be.

Here's some pretty funny Texas school absence jokes that make the problem clearer:

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | November 3, 2009 2:45 PM | Report abuse

Giving workers a mild incentive to save sick days rather than abuse them would resolve the problem.

Another remedy would be for employers to give time-off with pay when the state or federal government declares there is a flu epidemic.

Posted by: starfleet_dude | November 3, 2009 2:52 PM | Report abuse

starfleet's idea is a good one: the gov't could declare public health emergencies when necessary, rather than mandating sick day policy all-year-around.

At the same time, I have to admit that businesses that spend all their time in a state of paranoia worrying that someone, somewhere, is going to "abuse" their sick leave has something wrong with it. Abusers are easy to spot. Workers who are so subtle in their abuse that they are hard to detect aren't worth worrying about. One of my old jobs had a "sick leave as needed" policy. If we were sick, we were sick and told our supervisor that we couldn't make it in that day. Maybe someone decided to call in sick to take a "mental health day" even though he didn't have the flu, but, realistically, no one cared as long as his work still got done.

And everyone railing against regulations that would require sick leave should tell us whether their jobs don't have sick leave.

Posted by: constans | November 3, 2009 3:13 PM | Report abuse

I get PTO which can be used for sick or vacation days, which I am supposed to coordinate with management to avoid workflow issues. It seems like a good compromise because it doesn't encourage people to lie about being sick to take time off. At the same time, if I use it all for vacation and then get sick (hasn't happened yet) then I have to take time w/o pay if I get sick.

to MBP2: I don't know about productivity, but mandated vacation and sick time combined with UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE means that the socialist hellhole of europe has better health and life expectancy for its citizens, a better work/family balance, and somehow they manage to run smaller deficits and still build things like cars, electronics, and other machinery in Europe. How do they do that?

Posted by: srw3 | November 3, 2009 3:24 PM | Report abuse

MPB2: I don't know if the European and US unemployment numbers are calculated the same way (we know the US numbers are underestimates), but the Eurozone unemployment rate for September was 9.7%. Here, 9.8%.

I might be more concerned about the productivity issue if the vast majority of the American people were offered any compensating benefits for their higher productivity. But for 30+ years, virtually all those benefits have been retained at the top of the economic ladder.

Back to the question at hand, however: What's your solution? What free market, voluntary solution do you propose to ensure that sick, infectious individuals do not feel compelled to come to work out of sheer desperation or fear of reprisal? And why has such a solution not already been summoned into existence by the invisible hand of the glorious market? Or do you simply see no problem here?

Posted by: bcamarda2 | November 3, 2009 3:38 PM | Report abuse

*What free market, voluntary solution do you propose to ensure that sick, infectious individuals do not feel compelled to come to work out of sheer desperation or fear of reprisal?*

Ooo-- ooo! I know the answer! Threaten to fire them if they show up sick! The employee will have to calculate the odds of whether he'll get fired for calling in sick vs. the odds that he'll get fired for showing up to work with the flu and pick whichever option gives him the highest probability that he will keep his job.

Posted by: constans | November 3, 2009 3:40 PM | Report abuse

To the gentleman railing against government intervention on the grounds that we as a society will collapse into a festering European Socialist hellhole, may your underpaid, uninsured waitress, who, lacking any manner of sick day and therefor is required to work while ill in order to feed and clothe herself, hawk a swineflu loogie into your appletini.

Posted by: HubertBalderdash | November 3, 2009 3:45 PM | Report abuse

Most business simply can't give workers paid sick days. It's not health-related -- it's practical, but admittedly short-sighted and self-serving. Consider Klein's two-person restaurant example from the other day: if one of the two employees of a two-person operation is out sick, the business must suffer loss due to closure.

Perhaps what's needed (and all kidding aside) is government-subsidized sick days, whereby businesses are compensated for all losses due to the absence of an ill employee.

Posted by: rmgregory | November 3, 2009 4:27 PM | Report abuse

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