The Sickening State of Paid Sick Leave

By Rebeldad Brian Reid

I know it's March, and the crocuses are beginning to pop through the ground, but it seems like we're nowhere near the end of the cold-and-flu season. I continue to live with the fear that I'll wake up feverish or that my kids will wake up vomiting.

But I don't have any worry that a few days of the flu will wreck the family budget. My employer offers me five paid sick days a year, putting me in the lucky 52 percent of the private-sector workforce that has an option to take a day or two to recuperate (or help a little one recuperate) without putting myself in any kind of fiscal jeopardy. The flip side of this, of course, is that 48 percent of private-sector workers aren't as lucky. And low-wage workers are even less likely to be able to afford a day of recovery.

Of all the work-life proposals floating around out there, mandating sick leave seems like it should be one of the most straightforward, which is why I'm thrilled that the National Partnership for Women and Families has launched an online rally to try to push Congress to pass legislation mandating paid sick leave. They're collecting stories, so if you've been stymied by a restrictive employer, let them know.

This is not just a matter of giving a measure of relief to anyone who has been up all night with a vomiting kid or who wakes up with a 102-degree fever. Anything that would encourage sick people to actually stay the heck away from their cubicles -- and their colleagues -- when they feel like dirt is likely to actually help businesses. A Cornell study from a few years ago found that "presenteeism" -- showing up at work when you're actually sick -- demolishes productivity, completely wiping out the cost of spending the day under the covers with a tin of zinc lozenges.

And don't even get me started on the agony of sitting around the conference table with the sneezy Sudafed poppers. Day-care centers and schools have written policies that basically bar sick kids from walking in the door for the protection of everyone else at the school. But a huge number of employers not only tolerate it when people come to work with a raging illness, they encourage it through their sick leave policies (or lack thereof).

So, though I'm celebrating the emergence of spring, I'm hoping that by the time we hit the next flu season, everyone will have one less thing to fear. How about you: What risks do you run if you take a sick day?

Brian Reid writes about parenting and work-family balance. You can read his blog at rebeldad.com.

By Brian Reid |  March 6, 2008; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Conflicts
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For those who can, find a new job with a more family-friendly employer. For those who can't, call and e-mail your legislators and try and get the system changed.

Personally, I work for the federal govt so i get 13 sick days a year. but don't think that keeps sick people home. There are still plenty who come in sick and coughing for fear of using all their sick leave!

Posted by: happydad | March 6, 2008 7:21 AM

I am lucky that I get 6 sick days but that doesn't stop me from going into work sick. I am still at 0 from when I got the flu last Jan and was so sick that the doctor put me on bed rest. Half of my yearly sick leave was wiped out by the second week of Jan 2007. Add in a problem with my back later in the year and I am still struggling to accumulate sick leave a year later.

We used to get 10 days a year and that was very nice. You actually felt like you could take a the required time off to recover without playing catch-up later in the year.

But despite the above grousing... I realize that what I get is better than what my husband gets. That would be nothing. He doesn't go to work, he doesn't get paid and we fall even further behind on the bills.

Posted by: Billie_R | March 6, 2008 7:34 AM

"What risks do you run if you take a sick day?"

None. That's one of the reasons I chose to work for the Feds.

Posted by: chittybangbang | March 6, 2008 7:46 AM

Dear Happydad,
I'm glad you have peace of mind...
Now, as your employer I don't have peace of mind... Your chair is empty and the phone is ringing off the hook... Other staff is trying to cover your work as best they can, but still, over half the phone calls and half the customers who will walk in to talk to you will end up going away empty handed... They will take their business and their dollars elsewhere... This is a big deal for me...

Everything I have in this world is invested in this business and even my house is collateral for the loans I had to take out last year to install the new computer system you are not here to use this morning... So, today I will pay you your wages, and lose at least half of the cash flow you should have generated... I will take a significant loss to the bottom line for the week while you will take home this days wages... I will take no money home to my family today... If you are also off 'sick' tomorrow I will in fact have to transfer money from my savings account to the business account so I can make the payroll on Friday...

So, while I sit in my office between trying to cover some of the calls you should have been her for and overdosing on Dimetapp and Advil for my lousy cold, I am glad you are comfortable at home and have peace of mind... Nothing is more important than a happy employee...

Posted by: ad4hk2004 | March 6, 2008 7:50 AM

Brian, your comments are on target this morning. We just had a conversation at our breakfast table this morning about my husband's upcoming business trip -- Child asked "what are you going to bring me?" and my husband responded, "probably some kind of horrible European flu -- just like last time." We've discovered that any time anyone travels anywhere, they seem to get sick and bring home germs to share with the rest of the family. and probably the office.

There's a norm in many workplaces that the day after a business trip you drag yourself in to catch up on whatever you missed while away that probably helps to spread disease and germs. On top of everything else.

Posted by: justlurking | March 6, 2008 7:51 AM

Thank heaven I accumulate about 9 paid sick days a year, since I work for my state government. This means the burden of sick-kid care falls on me, because my husband works for a (very) small buisness, and his boss gives them 5 "personal" days a year - sick, dr. appts., your car broke, the furnace broke, etc. That's fine, and generous given the position he's in, but my husband developed pneumonia a few weeks ago after getting the death flu. He was ordered by his doctor to stay home for a week.

In my situation, this would be no problem. But in his, the buisiness almost completely went under, and he lost all of his floating leave time for one illness. I've not been able to accumulate more than about 3 days, so if there is a major illness we're toast, unless we can dip into our vacation time. My office encourages us to stay home when we're sick. His, obviously, doesn't. So, lucky us I work where I do, and am staying put for now.

Posted by: Mazarin | March 6, 2008 7:55 AM

I work for a small utility, not great pay, but good benefits. I accumulate a little over 12 sick days per year, and can use them for personal illness, sick kids or whatever. And as long as I show up before someone gets sick for the day, I don't have to take any sick leave for that day, either. I feel very fortunate to have this situation, and to have a fairly healthy family - so far, not one of the 3 kids has missed any school this year.

Posted by: pamsdds | March 6, 2008 8:01 AM

ad4hk2004, I'm very sorry for you, but you failed Business Management 101. If you're going to invest all or a significant amount of your own money in anything - including a business of your own - you MUST have backup/contingency plans. You MUST NEVER be "one deep" in any critical position. If one employee being sick endangers the financial health of your business, then you have not planned properly; you have not considered contingencies; you have not understood risks; and you will very likely lose your investment. If that's your house, your retirement, your kids' college funds, that's terrible, but it's an even worse reflection on you.

If your business suffers that badly because happydad is out one or two days with an illness, what would happen if, heaven forbid, he got run over by a bus and killed? From your posting, it appears you would be filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

So while your post was somewhat entertaining - and I agree that hyperbole can be an effective tool in making a point - it was divorced from reality.

Your Business Management 101 grade is an "F". Please see the registrar to register for summer school and try to learn the material then.

Posted by: ArmyBrat | March 6, 2008 8:18 AM

"Your Business Management 101 grade is an "F". Please see the registrar to register for summer school and try to learn the material then."

Faber college needs the money.

ZERO.....POINT......ZERO

Posted by: chittybangbang | March 6, 2008 8:31 AM

ArmyBrat, I took that post as being a bit of an exagerration, but the truth is a lot of small companies depend on their workers showing up. We have one worker who is out it seems one day a week, either he is sick or his kid is sick. ALL THE TIME. It does affect that bottom line, as we are a service company and some jobs do not get done, or get done late, and we end up with a dissatisfied customer who may not call us again.

Posted by: Catwhowalked | March 6, 2008 8:31 AM

Between pregnancy, a couple stomach bugs, a sinus infection and my husband getting the flu (!), our family has had its share of a tough time so far in 08. (Somehow our 4 year old has avoided these, which is amazing, and now that I put that in print I'm sure he'll get hit this weekend.) I used sick days and worked from home when I felt I could get work done, but didn;t want to infect others at office, as we work in close quarters to one another. The kicker was two weeks ago when my supersivisor told me she'd rather me take a full day off when I am sick, rather than get my work done for half a day at home. Thus, leaving co-workers and clients empty handed. I almost laughed at my attempt to do the right the thing by delivering to my company and then being told not to do my work. Interestingly, I was laid off last week, so clearly there were other things going on here re the company's need for my services... but it was one of the more confusing Sick Day issues I've encountered.
Next time I guess I go to work and sneeze all over everyone... rather than "waste" a valuable sick day. Hmmph!

Posted by: anderssen.h | March 6, 2008 8:36 AM

Funny you mention "low-wage workers," then just a few sentences later hop right back to middle class bias of cubicles. At least in a cubicle you can sit down all day and avoid people as much as possible. What about the folks who work in your grocery stores, your plumber, your janitorial staff? My husband is an electrician, and he goes to work sick when he has to. Which means, he is going to your house sick. But he probably picked it up from someone else's house the day before.

Posted by: rubytuesday | March 6, 2008 8:37 AM

electricians are hardly low wage workers!

Posted by: moxiemom1 | March 6, 2008 8:53 AM

When a blog recycles the same topics week after week like this, maybe it's time shut it down. This subject has been beaten to death many times already, just like everything else that has been mentioned here lately.

Posted by: dennis5 | March 6, 2008 9:00 AM

I feel incredibly spoiled. I get 13/13 days of sick/vacation a year. My husband gets 15 anything days. I'm a Fed, he's with Big Corp. What do the folks at Big Law get, on top of the 12 weeks paid maternity leave?

I stay out when the kid is sick. My husband schedules patients, and I can work from home. Works for us. Usually I get sick once every other year or so, so I usually don't use sick for me, but this year was HORRIBLE for everyone I know. I was sick with strep in Dec, a sinus infection in Jan, then 2 weeks of a hacking cough.

Posted by: atb2 | March 6, 2008 9:22 AM

Catwhowalked, I understand well - I worked for a number of small businesses in high school and college. Gas stations, grocery stores, plumbing supply wholesaler, and "unskilled labor" for electricians and plumbers.

But all of those business owners understood the risks and considerations when they started. The gas station owner knew that she was working 20 hours a day if an employee got sick - UNLESS she had other employees available to cover. She also knew that if she got sick and didn't have employees lined up to cover, she would have to close the station for several days. She'd lose money and maybe lose her investment. Since she wasn't willing to take that big a risk, she had contingency plans in effect - backups who could cover for her.

Plumbers and electricians who worked for themselves knew that if they got sick, they had to work while sick or lose business. The choice was to go to work for some other company. It was a tradeoff that they knowingly and willingly made - job independence in exchange for no sick leave.

Note that that's very different from an employee of the company, who does not have independence, ownership or investment, and who won't reap the rewards. I wasn't coming in with bronchitis for $2.65 an hour so that the electrician would make more money!

Posted by: ArmyBrat | March 6, 2008 9:30 AM

FYI, the D.C. City Council just passed the Sick and Safe Leave Act of 2008, which would mandate paid sick days for employees in the District. The number of paid sick days are based on the amount of time the employee works and the size of the employer. For example, a full time employee for an employer with more than 100 employees gets 7 paid sick days a year. Google the name of the act & you can find out more about it. If it clears the last two hurdles (the mayor's office and Congress), it would go into effect at the end of the year, making D.C. the second city to mandate paid sick leave (San Francisco was the first, of course).

Posted by: plawrimore1 | March 6, 2008 9:33 AM

I sympathize with anyone that doesn't have sick leave (I have a generous amount myself). That said, I am concerned about our government continuing to mandate more and more of how businesses are run. Am I the only one concerned that businesses are moving overseas because it is too expensive to be in the US? There IS a cost associated with everyone of these "mandates", after all.

Posted by: jjtwo | March 6, 2008 9:40 AM

My biggest risk in taking a sick day is that I'll turn out to have needed the day for something else.

Several years ago I was diagnosed with something semi-serious, and had to have surgery. The good news is that I'm fine, the bad news was that my accumulated sick/vacation leave was what I had to make ends meet with.

All those questionable days where I went ahead and went to work paid off as I was able to take 4 weeks off to recover.

I have sympathy for those with no leave. The reality is that a lot of low-wage jobs don't but if they bump benefits up those folks will find themselves underbid by another entity who doesn't offer leave. If one state legislates better leave you can be sure that jobs that can will migrate to another state. So it's probably a Federal solution. Good luck is all I can say.

Posted by: RedBird27 | March 6, 2008 9:41 AM

Feds have it pretty good. We get 13 sick days and you start with about 2 weeks of annual (vacation leave) time. Then in three years or so, it goes up to 4 weeks and eventually 5 weeks of annual. Your sick never increases but you can carry over unlimited sick leave. I find between husband and myself, we have enough sick leave for regular illnesses, doctors appointments, and sick kids each year. I had enough sick/annual leave for both maternity leave. The problem is only with if you get a serious illness or operation. If you use all your sick leave for maternity/paternity, sick visits, doctor visits, and sick kids, you may not have enough for a serious illness (cancer, hysterectomy etc...). But here is where my agency is cutting edge (for the feds). In July they are instituting a new short term disability insurance where part of your salary is paid for through the insurance. It covers up to 6 months in a calendar year. So you can exhaust your sick leave on normal run of the mill illnesses and still have a viable back up plan giving you get the big C or operation or deathly ill parent type event. But we are rare. As far as I know, we are the only federal agency with that plan going into effect. I am not sure what private industry companies you guys are working for but most of my friends who work in PI, get STD (for the biggies), a few personal (sick days) and normal (3+) weeks of vacation a year. Given they have worked for at least a few years for the same company. Maybe it is a DC professional thing but I am not hearing these no sick leave policies for professional workers. Even given the generous sick leave policies, I see the vast amount of people come in when they still show mild symptoms. Seriously, why wouldn't you? I had two days off in a row last week for a bronchial infection. I was coughing up infected mucus. Even though I have my own office, I get bet dollars to doughnuts, no one would have appreciated my prescence. My rule of thumb is if I think I am still going to be highly contagious, stay home. It was the first time in a 12 years of working that I missed two days for a single illness that I have had. I had to miss multiple days for my kids because of 24 hour rule or other illnesses. But most adults, will drag themselves into work if they can at all get out the door. Whether they should or they shouldn't doesn't mean it won't happen. I even intern for a private company in Atlanta one summer who gave all employees unlimited sick time (even interns). People still showed up coughing, hacking, runny nose, low grade fever etc... For adults, life generally goes on. For the sole prop whose business might go under because of one person, I would re evaluate some of your business strategies. You shouldn't be that dependent on one person. For all you know, one of your employees can get hit by a bus any day of the week.

Posted by: foamgnome | March 6, 2008 9:44 AM

foamgnome,
What agency do you work for? That sounds like a wonderful plan. As a fellow fed (almost 30 years) I would love to see my agency do something like this.

Posted by: jackdmom | March 6, 2008 9:51 AM

Even though I get 13 days sick leave, I come to work sick...because... 1) the Feds have no paid maternity leave...so I had to use up most of my sick leave and 2) my kids are young and in daycare and thus get sick every five minutes.

Frankly, I end up working from home even when I take sick leave...so I wish the Feds had a more flexible policy about working from home on a case-by-case basis. People think it would not work because folks would just slack all day...but if there were such a policiy I could easily produce a log (or copies of the drafts/editing/projects I'm working on) as proof that I was actually working.

Posted by: mgrajales | March 6, 2008 9:56 AM

jackdmom:I am not allowed to say on a blog but I will give you a hint. We are one of the few agencies that do NOT fall under OPM guidelines. That is one of the main reasons, they can experiment with slight adjustments to our benefits package.

Posted by: foamgnome | March 6, 2008 10:00 AM

"My rule of thumb is if I think I am still going to be highly contagious, stay home."

I so wish more people at my company had this attitude. My company is fairly generous with sick leave--10 days a year beginning on Jan. 1, no accrual. So WHY WHY WHY do all the people who are contagious and feverish insist on coming in to make me sick too??? And the worst offenders are the people who are so proud of themselves for "never having taken a sick day."

Posted by: teaspoon2007 | March 6, 2008 10:48 AM

I am really lucky, too, I have 12 sick days annually. It helps our whole family, because I'm seldom sick, but if Organic Kid gets sick, I can stay home with her. Organic Guy is self-employed, and of course, he can take a "sick day" whenever he wants, but it will affect the bottom line more than if I do. The other great experience I have is Organic Guy's support of my work. If Organic Kid is sick, he will stay with her while I run to the office, grab a pile of work that I can do at home. I tell work that Organic Kid is sick, but if something needs an answer NOW, that anyone can call my cell number for work (my job sometimes needs answers in 5 minutes, like the time I was talking to a farmer who was assisting a vet with a c-section of a jersey cow, and they needed a list of medications they could use and maintain organic certification, that was fun!). This also gives me a chance to run by the store and pick up 7-up or chicken broth, or extra Tylenol meltaways or whatever. When I get back, he heads off to his work. Regardless if it's me or Organic Kid that's sick, I'll check work email a few times a day, just in case.

But, at the same time, I really feel for those that don't have sick leave. I will never forget when I was in college, and working as a server at a local pub/grill. I had a fever of 101, and when I called in, I was told I had to either come in or be fired, because someone else had also "sicked out." I really needed the job because I paid for everything (including tuition/books, etc.), so I sucked it up, and went in (yeah, how would you have liked me to serve you food???). About 45 minutes into the shift, everything went fuzzy. Next thing I remember is laying on a booth, and having a cold cloth laying in my forehead. I was hustled back to the office, where I called my roommate, she picked me up, and I *think* I was fired. I remember offering to work out my schedule, and the owner saying that wouldn't be necessary, and my paycheck would be ready tomorrow. But I don't remember the rest of the conversation. Ever since this experience, I fully support the concept of mandatory sick leave. Food service folks are one of the least protected in this regard, and the most likely to spread disease! Generally speaking, I support businesses being left to make their own decisions as to what's best for their needs, but I will not budge on this one. Sick leave should be required for everyone!

Posted by: OrganicGal1 | March 6, 2008 10:48 AM

I used to work "onsite" for a fed gov't contractor. They had "comprehensive" leave (3 weeks/year) which was supposed to cover both vacation and sick leave. This was supposed to prevent "abuse" of sick leave. Anyway, the result was that many of my co-workers came to work sick, so they could save their leave for vacations.

My current employer (a university) has a very liberal sick leave policy. 12 days/year with unlimited accumulation. Some of the older employees were hired when the university had an unlimited sick leave policy. They also cover "wellness" programs in their health insurance: free flu shots for employees and their families, free/cheap exercise classes, cheap and convenient health screenings, etc.


Posted by: wxgeek96 | March 6, 2008 10:50 AM

Is everyone here allowed to use sick leave to take care of their kids? My company is very generous in that there is unlimited sick leave, however, it can ONLY be used if it is the EMPLOYEE that is sick, not their kids. If you want to stay home with your kids, you have to use your vacation or leave without pay. Therefore, I use hardly any sick leave at all. All the other companies I've worked for didn't allow you to use your sick leave for family either so I'm surprised that so many seem to be able to do so.

Posted by: tamara | March 6, 2008 10:51 AM

teaspoon wrote: "And the worst offenders are the people who are so proud of themselves for 'never having taken a sick day.'"

Oh, and don't forget the kid who receives an award and newspaper write-up at high school graduation for never having missed a day of school since kindergarten -- while doubtless having exposed plenty of other kids (as well as teachers) needlessly to his/her colds, flu, etc.

Posted by: mehitabel | March 6, 2008 10:53 AM

tamara - we have the option of using sick leave as "family medical leave." I don't have kids, but I've used it to take DH to the ER and for other events of that nature. I'm very thankful for it.

Posted by: artsygal_00 | March 6, 2008 11:07 AM

"My company is very generous in that there is unlimited sick leave, however, it can ONLY be used if it is the EMPLOYEE that is sick, not their kids. If you want to stay home with your kids, you have to use your vacation or leave without pay."

The problem with that policy is that it leads to a lot of employees calling in with the fake cough, hacking, "low grade fever and chills, better stay home" routine.

Posted by: ArmyBrat | March 6, 2008 11:20 AM

My employer provides us with 1000 hours (yes, 6 months) of sick leave per any 12 month period but there are some stipulations. You cannot use sick leave to take care of a sick family member and if you are sick for more than 2 days in a row you need a doctor's note (some managers ignore this, though). In addition, we have the same annual leave rates as the federal government. I count myself incredibly lucky.

Posted by: 21117 | March 6, 2008 11:27 AM

For me it's not so much risks from my employer - it's the pre-work I have to do when I'm sick. As a teacher, I drag myself to school with all kinds of ailments because preparing for a sub and then doing all of the work afterwards is more work than being in the classroom no matter how sick. The only time I've ever left the classroom was once when I felt like I had appendicitis (inflamed ovary), otherwise I tough it out.

Posted by: annwhite1 | March 6, 2008 11:30 AM

annwhite1: How many kids have you made needlessly sick because of your "martyrdom"?

Posted by: mehitabel | March 6, 2008 11:37 AM

So WHY WHY WHY do all the people who are contagious and feverish insist on coming in to make me sick too???

Posted by: teaspoon2007 | March 6, 2008 10:48 AM

In the current economic environment, I assume that most adults are smart enough to appreciate that, if the company or department can live without them for 1 or 2 days, perhaps it will occur to someone in management that the company or department can live without them permanently. I noticed some time ago that employees whose families depend on their income for their respective families' economic survival tend to have a better attendance record. Go figure, LOL.

ad4hk2004, you'll notice that most of the people talking about USING sick leave work for the government. Comparing the impact on the feds of lost work days to the impact on private sector businesses of those same lost work days is kinda pointless. Apples. Olives.

Posted by: mn.188 | March 6, 2008 11:40 AM

FYI, people are generally contagious before they are symptomatic or at least symptomatic enough to stay home, so they have shared their germs with you well prior to showing up with the coughing.

Posted by: moxiemom1 | March 6, 2008 11:45 AM

"if the company or department can live without them for 1 or 2 days, perhaps it will occur to someone in management that the company or department can live without them permanently."

Insecure much?

Posted by: mehitabel | March 6, 2008 11:45 AM

Moxie wrote: "so they have shared their germs with you well prior to showing up with the coughing."

True. But coughing and sneezing spread the germs several feet, as opposed to the more limited exposure from routine exhalation or skin contact. People continue to be highly contagious during the first few days after cold or flu symptoms present.

Posted by: mehitabel | March 6, 2008 11:48 AM

Moximom - I didn't mean to imply that electricians specifically are low-wage (but next time you call and electrician, ask the guy how much the company pays him vs what you pay the company, and then where he lives. Only two people DH works with live in Fairfax. The rest communt from Stafford, Faquier, Spottsy, Culpepers, etc). I was trying to point out the middle class, white collar bias. Brian made the token reference, then went right back to it.

Posted by: rubytuesday | March 6, 2008 12:00 PM

I'm very lucky because I hardly ever get sick, and so far, the rest of my family follows suit. My son has had 2 years of perfect attendance at school because he literally never even gets a cold. But I think sick leave is a very important thing to have, and really am appalled at situations such as Organicgal's where she was fired because she was so sick she fainted at work (where she should never have been in the first place if she was that sick). Yikes.

One thing that I think is worth mentioning is that general stress can make people more prone to illness, so for businesses, it's a good idea to promote a work environment that is not hellish. Happy employees tend to be healthier, more productive employees, who might be willing to work a few hours from home if necessary, even if they do have the flu. This sure beats taking the flu to the office. And businesses need to realize that their employees will get sick, and factor that into their business plans. If one employee's bout with the flu breaks your business, then you have no business being in business.

Posted by: emily111 | March 6, 2008 12:02 PM

"In the current economic environment, I assume that most adults are smart enough to appreciate that, if the company or department can live without them for 1 or 2 days, perhaps it will occur to someone in management that the company or department can live without them permanently."

True, but the flip side is that all employees should realize that they are expendable, and that no amount of effort or productivity will make you irreplaceable. I had a coworker who was quite a dynamo at work. She came in early, left late, worked from home on evenings and weekends, and was incredibly dependable and competent. She also ignored some health issues because she was so busy at work, and did not take the time to look into some early symptoms. By the time she went to the doctor's her cancer was so advanced it could no longer be treated, and she was dead within a year. Today, work goes on as usual, she has been replaced, and things are running as smoothly as ever, even though her replacement is not as devoted to work as she had been. I really wish she had been less concerned about being needed at work, and more concerned about being needed by her kids and grandkids, who still miss her terribly.

Posted by: emily111 | March 6, 2008 12:10 PM

"In the current economic environment, I assume that most adults are smart enough to appreciate that, if the company or department can live without them for 1 or 2 days, perhaps it will occur to someone in management that the company or department can live without them permanently."

True, but the flip side is that all employees should realize that they are expendable, and that no amount of effort or productivity will make you irreplaceable. I had a coworker who was quite a dynamo at work. She came in early, left late, worked from home on evenings and weekends, and was incredibly dependable and competent. She also ignored some health issues because she was so busy at work, and did not take the time to look into some early symptoms. By the time she went to the doctor's her cancer was so advanced it could no longer be treated, and she was dead within a year. Today, work goes on as usual, she has been replaced, and things are running as smoothly as ever, even though her replacement is not as devoted to work as she had been. I really wish she had been less concerned about being needed at work, and more concerned about being needed by her kids and grandkids, who still miss her terribly.

Posted by: emily111 | March 6, 2008 12:10 PM

Couldn't the person who "never took a sick day" just have been lucky?

I work for a private company which is a contractor to the City of New York, and whose employees are represented by a reasonably good union. While our salaries are very low compared to salaries of equivalent workers in other companies in our field, our benefits are much better, in terms both of leave and of health-care coverage.

We get 12 sick days a year, awarded on the first day of the contract year, October 1. An employee can accumulate sick days up to a maximum of 40. If, after having been awarded the yearly 12 sick days, an employee would have more than 40, he is instead paid for those days above 40, and then starts the year with 40.

I was not actually all that aware of this policy until, one October, I was pleasantly surprised with a nice check for those days above 40! Yes, I had gone five years without a sick day!

Now, I am certainly, CERTAINLY not one of these "work-driven" people who defines himself by his job. (Indeed, I posted last week on the "Passion" guest blog that "life" is equivalent to "everything BUT work"). But, during those five years, I was just lucky enough not to have had fevers or any other serious illnesses.

I had the occasional sniffles or other cold symptoms; but, on those days, I simply made a mental note not to tongue-kiss anyone, and I went about my business with a little extra circumspection.

And my good luck has for the most part held out. Since that point (about 10 years ago), I have used anywhere from 0 to 3 days each year, thereby getting paid every October for the unused days (anywhere from 9 to 12).

Still, stuff does happen sometimes: a fever in January, and some lovely pinkeye last week did in fact force me to use sick days in each instance. So, that's two sick days used, and the year (Oct. 1 - Sept. 30) is nearly half over. So, even with those days making this a "bad year", I seem to still be pretty close to my established pattern.

Anyway, I hope I have not jinxed myself here, and will not wake up tomorrow with advanced scurvy! But, still, I'd say that it is not at all a good assumption to conclude that the person who "never took a sick day" is making others sick; nor is it unrealistic for an ordinary person to not have a serious illness for X number of years.

Posted by: cesarano | March 6, 2008 12:45 PM

"Couldn't the person who "never took a sick day" just have been lucky?"

No. I caught the flu from him.

Also to Emily's point although thankfully this is a less dramatic illustration, people who can take sick days and don't really do hurt themselves as well. Someone else in my office ignored his fever/cough etc. for 2 weeks and then was out for a week with pneumonia. Maybe if he had stayed home a day or two at the beginning he could have avoided that. If you are lucky enough to have sick leave, you should use it. I really feel for the people who don't have sick leave and don't have that option.

Just wondering, as an aside--is the lack of sick leave at all correlated with a lack of health insurance?

Posted by: teaspoon2007 | March 6, 2008 12:58 PM

Something I've never understood about being a "salaried" employee versus being an "hourly" employee, when it comes to sick time and vacation time....why do salaried employees even receive sick and vacation time? I certainly don't get paid overtime for any extra work I put in for the year, so why should I only have a certain amount alotted to take off, if, for the year, I am getting all of my work compelted?

Posted by: hill2003 | March 6, 2008 1:10 PM

Hill- I'm with you there. Personally (and this has been discussed here before) I always wondered why X hours mattered more than Y production and progress? I don't care if you're smoking, cybering, having sex in a closed meeting room- as long as your work gets done well and no one's waiting or picking up for you, it's fine to me.

On sicktime- yeah I was one of those "perfect attendance" kids probably getting other kids sick. I can only say it was an irrational belief that being there gave me some special edge and perfection was the only thing worth having. Also, the few times I did have to be out or miss a half day, that would ALWAYS be the day something major happened and I missed it.

Glad to say I got over that particular neurosis.

Posted by: EmeraldEAD | March 6, 2008 2:34 PM

hill2003 - re: salaried employees and vacations: generally, it's a guarantee from your employer that no matter how you're doing on work, you'll get at least that much time off during the year. You may have to work 100 hours per week all the other weeks, but if they have to let you disappear from the office for those 2 (or 3 or 4 or...) weeks.

In a perfect world a guaranteed minimum time off wouldn't be needed, but the world is far from perfect.

Posted by: ArmyBrat | March 6, 2008 2:41 PM

annwhite1: How many kids have you made needlessly sick because of your "martyrdom"?

Probably next to none - I keep hand sanitizer and anti viral tissues on hand for myself. I have very good hygeine in my classroom as I run a high school chemistry lab, and my students do as well. They probably encounter more germs from swapping spit and sharing drinks in the halls then they do in my classroom.

Believe me I have far more chance of catching something from them, than they from me....

Posted by: annwhite1 | March 6, 2008 3:43 PM

"re: salaried employees and vacations: generally, it's a guarantee from your employer that no matter how you're doing on work, you'll get at least that much time off during the year."

Also, there are plenty of salaried positions where part of the job is being available - I always have a certain amount of work that is predictable and just needs to get done, but I also need to be available in case something comes up. So vacation is not just, "I finished my work, I'm taking a break" but "I'm not going to be available for this span of time, someone else has to cover."

Posted by: LizaBean | March 6, 2008 3:58 PM

I've "banked" over 400 hours of sick leave in the 7 years I've been with my company. If I leave, which I may do soon, I lose all of it -- over 10 weeks of time. Unfortunately, I'm not allowed to donate any of that leave to my colleagues who are battling things like cancer. I can only donate my vacation time. Now how does that make any sense?

Could an accountant please explain that to me?

Posted by: gottabeanon1 | March 6, 2008 4:52 PM

At my last job, I remember someone being forced to leave for the day when she came in sick (and she was really mad about being forced to use her sick leave). I appreciated it, though. If you are really, really sick, coughing up a lung and so forth, it isn't fair to your coworkers to show up to "spread the love."

Plus, what are you supposed to do if you have an immunocompromised person at home and your cubemate shows up with the flu? Use your own leave to get away from them?

Posted by: floof | March 6, 2008 5:10 PM

I'm a federal employee living in Chicagoland who has never had a problem staying home due to illness (mine or my kids'.)

I've experienced first hand, however, the consequences of employees coming to work while sick. I had the misfortune of contracting severe food poisoning from eating a burrito made by a fast food worker who was sick. I was out sick for over a week because, being in my first trimester of pregnancy, my doctor felt it was safer to let the illness run its course rather than prescribe antibiotics. When my local health department called to conduct an epidemiological interview, I was obviously upset about the whole situation. The health department employee, however, asked me to consider the plight of the fast food worker -- a low paid employee who earned no paid sick leave and might even get fired for calling in sick.

Thankfully my baby was born healthy. The whole experience made me wonder, however, what has our society come to when business owners put their profits ahead of the health and safety of their employees and customers!!

Posted by: ChicagoGal | March 9, 2008 10:57 PM

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