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Lack of sick pay sends colds, flu to work

Curt Nickisch Oct 20, 2009

Lack of sick pay sends colds, flu to work

Curt Nickisch Oct 20, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: We learned of a near ideal clinical sampling of swine flu today and how easily that disease can spread. This past July more than a 100 new Air Force Academy cadets got sick with the H1N1 virus. They were quarantined. The outbreak was contained within two weeks. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that almost a quarter of ’em were still contagious more than 24 hours after their symptoms disappeared. That 24-hour mark is when the CDC says it’s OK to go back to work, which turns this into a real problem for the rest of us because half of America’s private sector workers don’t get paid sick leave. So it’s pretty tempting to show up at the office anyway.

Curt Nickisch reports from WBUR in Boston.

CURT NICKISCH: Melissa Hinckley walks around with hand sanitizer in her purse, but not because she’s a hypochondriac.

MELISSA HINCKLEY: I’m more afraid of how much it will cost me — time and money — than actually being sick.

Twice a week you’ll find her here, taking classes at the University of Massachusetts. The other weekdays, she works as a nanny, for $9.25 an hour.

Melissa doesn’t get paid sick leave. So if she’s out sick for one day, she’s out one-third of her weekly paycheck. She says the pressure to throw back some Tylenol and fight through it is real.

HINCKLEY: So here I am, sick, a couple weeks ago. And I go to work and the mom happened to be home that day, she was like: Are you OK? And I’m like: I think I have a really bad sinus infection. And she’s like: Go home, go get better! And I’m sitting there thinking: I don’t want to go, I literally can’t afford to be sick.

But businesses can’t afford sick workers showing up.

Here, at the Boston dry cleaning chain Dependable Cleaners, workers are laundering and pressing shirts whose sleeves people have sneezed into and wiped their noses on. Owner Christa Hagearty is afraid if just one of her workers comes down with swine flu and comes in to one of her 14 stores, it could wipe out the rest of the staff there.

CHRISTA HAGEARTY: You know most people wait until they can’t lift their head off the pillow. Here, this swine flu it’s much more contagious, and it’s contagious longer than past flus, the ones that we’re used to.

So this flu season, Hagearty’s offering all 220 of her employees three paid sick days. It wasn’t an easy decision. The recession has been hard on her business, and this could cost her 660 paid days in all.

HAGEARTY: So in a sense it’s as if we were adding a couple additional full-time employees for a whole year. That would be the cost, without getting the employees. In fact, we’ll probably incur other costs covering the employees who are out.

Those costs are why Hagearty’s the exception. A recent Harvard study concluded that half of the nation’s businesses aren’t doing anything to prepare for swine flu.

And most of those that are, are doing more of the usual stuff. David Casey runs a Boston steakhouse called The Stockyard. He been installing more hand sanitizer and telling workers to sneeze into their elbows.

DAVID CASEY: I don’t think you want your waitress coming up with a runny nose. Or with a cough.

His workers don’t get paid sick leave. It’s up to them to keep themselves healthy, Casey says. Or else he’ll send them home.

CASEY: It’s a judgment call. We don’t want to shoot ourselves in the foot, we don’t want complaint letters constantly. It will be a tough call, a judgement call.

That cough you just heard? Yeah. Casey says he’s coming down with a little bit of a cold.

In Boston, I’m Curt Nickisch, for Marketplace.

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