Despite flu, business opposes sick days

Despite Swine Flu Spread, Businesses Oppose Sick Days

November 13
7:35 am

(Image from 1949 Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel political cartoon.)

By Roger Bybee

MILWAUKEE—With the rapid spread of the H1N1 "swine flu" virus in southeastern Wisconsin, the 47% of Milwaukee workers who lack paid sick days now confront some unpalatable choices.

"Right now, people have to choose between a pandemic and a paycheck," says Sangita Nayak, lead organizer for the 9 to 5 Working Women’s organization in Milwaukee.

Workers are forced to decide between losing income—and possibly their jobs, for taking time off—if they or their children become ill, or risk exposing others to a serious illness.  "Particularly for our area, it’s a great concern because Milwaukee and this state have been hit by especially virulent forms of swine flu."

Thus far, 18 deaths in Wisconsin a have been attributed to H1N1 since last spring, with the median age of victims only 37, a sharp contrast to normal strains of flu that take their heaviest toll on the elderly.

Yet the Milwaukee Metropolitan Association of Commerce and liberal Mayor Tom Barrett have not publicly modified their opposition to mandatory sick days for all workers in the city—in spite of 69% of Milwaukee voters supporting just that in a November 2008 referendum.

Still, the MMAC and Mayor Barrett are keenly aware of the H1N1 threat. A recent MMAC announcement alerted its members: "Employees may be at risk of getting sick with H1N1, as well as passing the strain to others in their families and communities. There is an additional risk of spreading the virus between employees and clients." Yet the MMAC is still firmly against the "anti-business" requirement of paid sick leaves.

Barrett’s continued opposition to paid sick days goes against medical advice from the city’s Health Department. (Barrett was not available for comment for this article.) In fact, the city’s official website links those seeking recommendations on handling H11N1flu symptoms to the website of the Centers for Disease Control.

The CDC ‘s advice? "If you get sick with flu-like symptoms this flu season, you should stay home and avoid contact with other people except to get medical care."

In line with the CDC’s urging, federal lawmakers are calling for new protections for workers lacking paid sick days in the interest of public health.  Citing the peril to public health caused by flu-ridden workers reporting to work out of economic necessity or fear, Sen. Christopher Dodd and Rep. George Miller are offering separate federal bills to mandate employers with 15 or more workers to provide paid sick days.

While paid sick days are taken for granted by nearly 90% of highly-paid workers and professionals, few of those at the bottom of the economic order enjoy such a basic right. Just 22% of the workers in the lowest-paid 10% workforce have such leave.

Sen. Dodd said three-quarters of workers lacking paid sick days work in food and service industries and thereby endanger not only co-workers, but the public. "Food service is not an industry where we want workers showing up with contagious viral infections," Congresswoman Rose DeLauro D-Conn. said recently.

Many low-paid health workers also lack paid sick days, noted Diana Hatch, president Of North Carolina AARP. She testified to Dodd’s labor and health subcommittee:

That [typical nursing-home] aide probably didn’t want to be there but she had no choice. If she stayed home and took care of her cold, she would not get paid for that day. Especially in today’s economy, the loss of a day’s pay can be a disaster to a low-paid worker living on a tight budget. Meanwhile, the elderly person is endangered and the aide will take longer to recover.

Public-health experts like Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, a group of 30,000 public health professionals, argue that approximately five days of time off is necessary to prevent infecting others. Boston Health Commissioner Dr. Barbara Ferrer says that taking time off "is critical to preventing the spread of the virus to healthy co-workers and classmates."  

And the New York Times recently reported:

Well before President Obama declared H1N1 a national emergency, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was emphasizing that businesses should adopt "flexible leave policies" to allow workers with the flu to stay home. In one advisory, the C.D.C. encouraged employers to develop ‘non-punitive leave policies.’

But slowing the spread of H1N1 is being slowed down by the fact that paid sick days are not a firmly established right for US workers. Some workers supposedly entitled to paid sick days are fearful of actually utilizing them, especially in today’s economy where employers feel that they can draw from an enormous reserve army of the unemployed.

"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," reports Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times

Thus, we have corporate leaders—in Milwaukee and nationally—along with public officials like Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming) shrieking that paid sick leave will destroy the economy. "This [mandate] will make Milwaukee the only city in Wisconsin with a mandated paid sick leave and will brand Milwaukee as a “job killer,” warns Chris Tackett, president & CEO of the Wisconsin Merchants Federation.

Peeling away the bizarrely self-righteous tone, Tackett’s stance is a threat disguised as an economic argument: Paid sick days will incite business to "kill jobs" by spitefully discarding Milwaukee—even if it means killing people by spreading the swine flu.

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