For some, it doesn’t pay to get sick

Marketplace Staff Feb 16, 2007

TESS VIGELAND: Maybe you can hear it in my voice. I’m a tad under the weather. Lucky for me, if I need to take a sick day, it won’t cost me anything. But for many workers, you call in sick, you lose your pay.

This week, a Senate committee held a hearing — in the middle of cold and flu season — to discuss paid sick day legislation. Debra Ness is with the National Partnership for Women and Families. She testified at the hearing. Debra, what’s the general intent of this proposed legislation?

DEBRA NESS: The legislation would guarentee workers a minimum number of paid sick days. Current proposal calls for seven paid sick days a year for full-time workers, and that would be prorated for part-time workers. It also would enable people to use that paid sick time to also take care of a sick family member. It’s what we call “Family-flexible” sick days.

VIGELAND: How many people have paid sick leave right now? How many workers?

NESS: Our best estimates are that about 52 percent of the private work force has paid sick days. Which means that almost half do not.

VIGELAND: Yeah . . . on one hand, you have, you know, some businesses arguing that this is going to cost them money. That, you know, giving paid leave is a hardship for them. But at the same time, we also always hear it’s never a good idea to come into work when you’re sick, because then you’re just spreading the germs around.

NESS: Most cost-benefit analysis shows that it really saves money for the employer to provide this minimum number of paid sick days. It doesn’t really make sense to have workers come to work sick. So, no matter how you look at it, it really does not end up being cost-effective for employers to be telling sick workers that they need to come into work.

VIGELAND: I want to ask you about a strategy that some companies use in terms of handing out leave of all kinds. Which is to create a basket of personal days that you can take during the year, either if you are sick or if you go on vacation or if you need a personal day. Isn’t that a disincentive for someone to stay home if they’re sick, then?

NESS: Most workers, even when they have paid sick days, use fewer of . . . then the number of days that they have. And when you have paid time off that can be used flexibly, that’s fine. As long as it can be used flexibly. What happens with many of these paid time-off programs is that the worker needs to get approval or get it scheuled well in advance. And then it does not serve the same purpose as paid sick days. People don’t plan when they get sick or when their kid gets sick.

VIGELAND: And in the meantime, I guess we just hope that flu season goes away. (Laughs)

NESS: (Laughs) We should be so lucky.

VIGELAND: Debra Ness of the National Partnership for Women and Families. Thanks for coming in.

NESS: Thanks very much for having me.

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