The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The United States still doesn’t mandate paid sick days. That’s sick.

I feel her pain. (iStock)
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I’m sick. For the past week, I’ve suffered from the very stuffy nose and barking cough that are the markers of this year’s summer cold that’s not covid. My doctor says I’ve got bronchitis.

I don’t tell you this so you feel sorry for me — though, yes, I will accept all thoughts and prayers, not to mention pints of fresh chicken and vegetable soup — but because it got me thinking about the United States and its pathetically inadequate laws about sick days.

Or, actually, a better way to put this: What laws?

The United States, alone among highly developed countries, does not guarantee workers a single paid day off for illness. This is not simply a moral failure — though it is, it is — but also the definition of foolishness from management’s perspective.

Sick workers, unsurprisingly, are significantly less efficient workers, and they are more likely to be injured on the job than their healthy colleagues.

They are also, if they’ve got an infectious illness, quite likely to spread it to their fellow employees, who, in turn, infect other people. A survey published after the 2009 H1N1 outbreak in the American Journal of Public Health claimed that more than 5 million flu-like illnesses during that outbreak were a direct result of lack of paid sick days. A separate study found the flu transmission rate decreases when people get stay home and get paid. Why wouldn’t anyone want to encourage that?

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Yet only a dozen states, plus D.C., ensure employees are able to take time off with pay for at least a few days if they fall ill. (New Mexico is poised to join them in 2022). A number of major cities have also stepped in. In Texas, on the other hand, courts have overturned municipal laws concerning time off for illness, saying they contradict state regulations.

And, no surprise in the forever unequal United States, the more money you make, the more likely you are to receive paid sick time. According to a 2019 survey by the federal government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 90 percent of people who are in the top quarter of earners receive sick pay; only a third of those earning less than $10.80 an hour can say the same. Whites are more likely to receive paid sick days than Blacks. All in all, a full 25 percent of workers in the private sector lack the right to stay home sick and still get paid. (As for gig workers — you’re joking, of course. They are fully on their own.)

I hoped the covid-19 pandemic would inspire a change in the paid sick leave status quo, but I turned out to be hopelessly naive. That’s not to say there haven’t been people fighting for it in Congress. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) regularly introduce legislation called the Healthy Families Act — most recently in April, when it had 37 sponsors in the Senate and 155 in the House. Not one of them is a Republican.

And, yes, Congress did pass a law last year ensuring many people diagnosed with covid would receive paid time off, something that’s credited with decreasing our case count. But if you’ve got anything else, from the common cold to cancer, you still need to depend on the laws of your state and the generosity of your boss.

Horror stories abound. Fast-food workers routinely report pressure to show up at work no matter how sick they are, something you might want to contemplate the next time you crave a burger. Even the coronavirus legislation didn’t fully stop this. A number of Marriott and Red Roof Inn franchises were among hundreds of businesses that got busted for not paying employees who stayed home when they were down with the illness. (Before the pandemic, fewer than half of all restaurant workers had any guaranteed sick time at all, which might offer a better explanation than overly generous unemployment insurance for why many are so reluctant to return to those positions.)

So why don’t things change? It is, in part, because many business groups routinely lobby against paid sick leave. But it’s also true that all too many of us internalize this work-at-any-cost attitude. Schools routinely give awards to students with perfect attendance — something that’s all but an invitation to show up contagiously sick. We tell people to “stay healthy” as though disease is a lifestyle choice and illness is a mark of failure. You might notice I am no exception — I am hacking away even as I write this column. As a result, the issue of paid time off for sickness and illness doesn’t get the attention it deserves. This needs to change. It’s not a healthy way to run an economy — or a society.