Legislation Worker health and wellness

Too sick to work?

Paid sick days may reduce the risk of workplace injuries and illnesses, but economic concerns are preventing mandates in some states

Too sick to work

Because the flu or a cold can produce symptoms that include high fevers, nausea, fatigue and congestion, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Mayo Clinic, and other health experts advise people who are ill to stay home from work and rest.

However, for many workers in the United States, this is not a possibility. About 41 million workers lack access to paid sick leave, according to the Washington-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

In addition, access to paid sick days is not evenly distributed. For example, only 28 percent of employees who earn less than $20,000 a year have access to paid sick leave, IWPR states. These workers find themselves in an uncomfortable situation when sick: stay home and get well, or go to work and earn a paycheck.

“If that person must go to work to put food on their table, that means they are risking their own health and the health of their co-workers,” said Vicki Shabo, director of work and family programs for the Washington-based National Partnership for Women and Families.


Going to work while sick has a noticeable impact on the safety and health of a workforce, Shabo said. In addition to possibly spreading illnesses among co-workers, employees could be more susceptible to injuries when they are sick. A 2012 NIOSH study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that workers who have access to paid sick days are 28 percent less likely to suffer occupational injuries.

“Introducing or expanding paid sick leave programs might help businesses reduce the incidence of nonfatal occupational injuries, particularly in high-risk sectors and occupations,” the study noted.

In several states and municipalities, legislators are working on requiring employers to provide paid sick time. When Safety+Health went to press, Connecticut was the only state with a law that allows a significant number of workers to earn paid sick leave. Large municipalities with similar laws include Jersey City, NJ; Portland, OR; San Francisco; Seattle; and Washington.

In June 2013, the New York City council overrode a veto from then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and passed a mandate that employers with 15 or more workers provide paid sick leave. Then, in late March, current city Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law legislation requiring employers with five or more employees to provide it.

“The momentum is growing. The level of national attention is growing,” Shabo said, noting that paid sick leave is an Obama administration initiative.

‘Pre-emption’ laws

However, some states – citing economic concerns – have passed legislation to pre-empt municipalities’ sick day laws.

Voters in Milwaukee passed a ballot measure in 2008 that would have guaranteed paid sick days for all workers in the city. However, before it could be implemented, the Wisconsin state legislature passed a bill banning such ordinances.

“This mandate would have had a detrimental impact on the ability and willingness of employers to create jobs in Milwaukee,” the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce stated when the state bill was signed into law.

Wisconsin has not been the only state to pursue legislative bans on local sick day laws. As of press time, at least 10 other states had “pre-emption” laws on the books, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Shabo maintains that paid sick leave does not negatively affect the economy. The National Partnership for Women and Families points to numerous studies that show paid sick leave laws in municipalities do not harm the economy or companies’ bottom lines – and in some cases, employee productivity and morale improved.

“Despite what organized business interests say, there’s been absolutely no harm to businesses or local economies,” Shabo said. “This is a key policy that allows people to stay on the job, provide for their families, and provide the care they and their loved ones need.”


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