This year’s flu season is relatively severe, with the annual flu vaccine only about 25 percent effective against the main flu strains that are circulating, according to the Centers for Disease Control. There are outbreaks of measles and meningitis around the country, not to mention the common cold.
And in workplaces across the country, millions of people continue to show up sick, infecting coworkers and customers. A survey by AARP published in December 2013 found that 52 percent of adults go to work or school ‘most of the time’ when they are sick; another 20 percent go ‘sometimes.’
The Obama Administration is pushing hard for Congress to pass legislation—the Healthy Families Act—that would guarantee workers could earn up to seven days of paid sick leave per year. Some cities and states already mandate that paid sick leave be provided by some or all employers—to be used by a sick employee, and sometimes also to care for a sick family member, such as a child or elderly relative. But Republican lawmakers are unlikely to pass any such new labor mandates on employers in this Congress.
Health-policy advocates point out that Americans often have close direct contact with those sick workers who are least likely to get paid sick leave. For instance, says Alina Salganicoff, head of Women’s Health Policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, “people who work in the restaurant industry have very low rates of paid sick leave”—the rate is 24 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Just 47 percent of retail workers get paid sick leave.
Salganicoff says if these workers do call in sick, they lose a day or more in wages, and risk being fired.
Showing up sick and underperforming at work, or even damaging equipment or products because of diminished capacity or the effects of medication, is known as ‘presenteeism’ in HR-parlance. The Centers for Disease Control reports lost productivity from illness costs employers $225 billion annually; and it cites data from the Harvard Business Review that the cost of presenteeism is $150 billion or higher.
Workers at the top of the income scale—especially managers and other professionals—are most likely to get paid sick leave. The rate is 84 percent among the top quartile (top 25 percent) of income-earners. The rate of paid sick leave is 30 percent for those in the bottom quartile of earners.