The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

More than a third of American workers don’t get sick leave, and they’re making the rest of us ill

Please don't come into work like this.

Today, President Obama's proposing legislation that would give American workers 7 days a year of paid sick leave. The U.S. remains the world's only wealthy nation that does not mandate a minimum of paid sick leave, vacation leave or parental leave.

Nationally, nearly 4-in-10 private sector workers -- 39 percent -- do not have access to any sick leave at all. Zero. Zilch. None. According to Betsey Stevenson of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, that amounts to 43.5 million workers who may be compelled by financial reasons to come into the office when they're sniffling, sneezing, barfing, and generally feeling under the weather, making the rest of us ill in the process.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that access to paid sick leave varies considerably by occupation. 88 percent of private sector managers and financial workers have access to paid leave, more than double the rate among service workers (40 percent) and construction workers (38 percent).

Paid sick leave is also a factor in the nation's income inequality, although whether it's a cause or effect isn't clear. The top 10 percent of private sector wage earners are more than four times as likely (87 percent) to get paid sick leave as the bottom ten percent of workers (20 percent).

The business case for paid sick leave is a strong one. A study last year of Connecticut's paid sick leave law found that employers saw little effect on their overall expenses, while 15 percent saw increased productivity, 20 percent saw a reduction in sick workers coming to the office, and 30 percent saw a notable improvement in employee morale. A year and a half after the law went into effect, more than three quarters of employers were supportive of it.

A 2003 study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that working sick cost American employers about $160 billion in lost productivity annually. Put succinctly, "Employees who work sick endanger business profits by putting the health and productivity of other workers – as well as customers and the public – at risk."

Paid sick leave is also, frankly, a public health issue. According to the American Public Health Association, during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic "an estimated 7 million additional individuals were infected and 1,500 deaths occurred because contagious employees did not stay home from work to recover." 1,500 deaths! 1,500 people died because a cadre of mucous troopers were unwilling or unable to stay home while infected with the flu. If a terrorist attack caused 1,500 deaths it would be a national crisis. But when those same deaths are caused by workplace sneezes we shrug.

Even setting the economic arguments aside, I'm all for any policy that's going to encourage workers to not contaminate the nation's transit systems and workplaces with their nasty icky sneezy wheezy sick germs. Adding the economic arguments makes it a no-brainer. Paid sick time is good for workers, good for employers, and good for the economy as a whole. From a policy standpoint it's about as close to a free lunch as you're gonna get.