Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Swine Flu = No Work for You

So the Centers for Disease Control is telling Americans that if they get the flu, or their kids do, they should stay home from work and/or keep their children home from school. Such self-quarantining will help prevent the spread of the regular flu, and the more fear-inspiring H1-N1 (aka: Swine flu).

It's good advice that absolutely makes sense: If you're sick, keep your germs to yourself. Rest, get better.

Unfortunately, for so many workers, taking a day off from work isn't an option. No work = no pay. Not showing up for work = no job. In most places, employers are not obligated to provide paid sick days, or even any sick days.

I'm job hunting. (All three kids are now in school!) A job I discussed with a very nice business owner I know, and like, provided no personal days or sick days. While I'm sure that if my kids or I truly had the flu, this employer would let me stay home from work without pay. I could swing it financially (especially since the job being discussed was so low-paying), but many families absolutely can't afford to miss even a day of paid work. Many parents can't take any time off to care for a sick, school-age child.

One employed mom friend explained that when her sons are borderline sick, and she can't take off from work, she gives the ill child a dose of Tylenol right before putting him on the school bus. By the time the medication wears off and the boy is feeling really rotten, school is more than half-way over. If the school calls, she says she can't come get him and that he should just rest in the nurse's office for a couple of hours and take the bus home. I was appalled by her admission but sympathetic to her plight.

Compounding the problem of not being able to take care of oneself or a sick family member is that, as I've written about before, too many families are without access to health insurance and health care. Because of that a seemingly simple flu can lead to a financial crisis: No work = no pay. No health insurance = no doctor or medication. (Or else go to the doctor and face a very large bill.)

As often happens, real life realities get in the way of what should be done.

P.S. (yup, I'm plugging them again) has information about legislative efforts around the country to codify worker- and family-friendly sick leave policies. Here's a link about their current advocacy work on the issue. I know businesses aren't thrilled to have to pay workers who are out sick (or claim to be), and many can't afford to do so. But it's a Catch 22: sick workers make other workers sick, which causes more people to become infected, which prevents work from being done, and so on. Workplace sick leave policies need to address the realities of both the employer and the employee. We can't ignore the realities of illness, and the
consequences it has on public health and the economy.

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