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Unpaid Sick Days: Who Really Pays?

Nancy knew it was a bad idea to go into work. She was feeling fluish, so she called the manager of the restaurant where she worked to ask for the day off. She did not have paid sick leave—so she would be losing a day’s salary—but Nancy decided her health, and the health of coworkers and restaurant patrons, was worth the sacrifice. Her employer, desperate for help during a VIP party, demanded that she come in. So she did, only to feel woozy and nauseous ten minutes into her shift. While helping to arrange the pan-seared scallop appetizers, she threw up on them. Her employer told her to take ten minutes and gather herself, then come back in and continue setting up.

If you happened to be dining in the restaurant where Nancy worked, chances are you would be horrified to find out a manager allowed a sick person to handle your food. But the situation might be more common than you might think. According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, almost half of private sector employees and a whopping seventy-nine percent of low income workers do not have paid sick days. Many of these people work in the service and hospitality industries, including restaurants.

Savvy companies have realized that offering paid sick leave cuts down on what is known as presenteeism. This is when sick employees, who cannot afford to miss a day’s pay, or have too much work or guilt to take a day off, come to work when they shouldn’t. An employee who is sick at work is not only less productive, but also threatens the health of other employees. In this way, presenteesim can affect overall productivity, and ultimately cost the company more than offering paid sick leave.

The affects of unpaid sick leave have ramifications greater than company productivity. When parents and caregivers are unable to take a day off to care for a sick child, schools become burdened with sick kids unable to be sent home. This stretches resources and puts other children and school staff at risk for infection.

Currently, the United States does not require companies to offer paid sick leave. The Healthy Families Act, recently introduced by Senator Kennedy of Massachusetts and Representative DeLauro of Connecticut, could change this. The bill would require companies to provide most full time employees with seven sick days a year. Employees could use this time to take care of themselves or to provide care for sick family members.

Some advocacy organizations, like the National Partnerships for Women and Families, are advocating for paid sick days and support for the Health Family Act. The Ms. Foundation for Women’s Mobile Action Network is allowing you to use your mobile phone to support paid sick days by texting in FAIR to 30466. By doing this, you will show your support for paid sick days, and receive a text message on what you can do to help the cause.

The message that many of America’s companies are sending to employees—get well soon, or else—is unacceptable. Even the healthiest of workhorses will fall ill at some point in their lives, or have to care for sick family members. Paid sick leave should be a fundamental right, not a job perk.

Read more on the “Should All Americans Get Paid for Sick Days” initiative, sponsored by the Ms. Foundation for Women.