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Sick day, sick pay

Posted: Thursday, November 12, 2009

The following editorial first appeared in the Chicago Tribune:

Got your H1N1 flu shot yet? Chances are the answer is no. There's a mad scramble for flu shots, which are in short supply across the country. Many doctors and health departments complain they can't get enough - or any.

So people are jittery.

Millions of Americans waiting for the inoculation are hoping to forestall the swine flu by taking the hand-washing and sneeze-covering precautions recommended by federal authorities and your mom.

Meanwhile, we've all become more alert to the chorus of coughs and sneezes on the typical bus or train. Most of us try to edge away from the afflicted and keep the peace. In a New York subway, however, a coughing woman who didn't cover up sparked a fight, complete with spitting, punching, and one woman dragging another to the ground by her hair, according to news reports. We hope that sort of reaction isn't spreading.

Predicting flu patterns is tricky. But millions of Americans can avoid the flu if those who are suffering from it will stay home and practice some simple precautions.

That's particularly true on the job. Many workers can call in sick and collect their pay anyway. But many others - particularly those in lower-paying jobs - can't. More than six in 10 of those workers don't get paid sick days, according to federal Bureau of Labor statistics. That means those advised by their employers to go home may be tempted to refuse because they can't afford to take days off without pay.

The U.S. House is considering a solution: Mandate that employers pay five sick days if they send a worker home or advise him to stay home. That's the essence of a bill recently introduced by U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

A new federal edict on sick days is the wrong way to deal with this.

Employers have a vested interest in persuading sick employees to stay home - and paying them.

Employers who resist that notion may want to check out the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that a single sick employee reporting to work could infect one in 10 co-workers. Multiply that by the numbers who typically fall ill at the same time and you can see why the feds are urging employers to plan for widespread absenteeism.

In some offices, the person who shrugs off illness and shows up is admired as tough. But when it comes to a highly contagious flu that could be lethal to people with underlying medical conditions, that attitude is just plain inconsiderate. A boss who encourages that behavior is foolish.

The flu season is gathering momentum. It's a good time for employers to remind employees to stay home if they're sick. And to assure all workers that they won't have to make a choice between their health and their paycheck.



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