Ask Adela Valdez how it feels to hear public health experts on TV explain ways to limit a flu outbreak. Get a flu shot, wash your hands, they advise -- and if you get the flu, stay home until 24 hours after your fever's gone.
"One day, I had a fever but I went to work anyway," Adela said. She'd worked for three years in a factory in New York making expensive lamps. "On the third day, I still had a fever. I felt very sick and I asked permission to go to the hospital."
Her supervisor's response? "Fine, go to the hospital, but don't come back. I need people who come here to work, not to get sick."
Adela lost her job.
Some management consultants acknowledge that sick workers may spread the flu to co-workers out of fear that they'll be fired if they stay home to recover.
"The economy is still on shaky ground and many workers continue to be worried about losing their jobs," said John A. Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., an outplacement consulting firm. "In this environment, workers are reluctant to call in sick or even use vacation days. Of course, this has significant negative consequences for the workplace, where the sick worker is not only performing at a reduced capacity but also likely to infect others."
The fear is real. University of Chicago researchers found nearly one in five workers reported that they or a family member had been fired, suspended, punished or threatened with being fired for taking time off due to personal illness or to care for a sick child or other relative.
And job loss isn't the only fear. In this economy, who can afford to lose even one day's pay?
Ask the people who serve our food, clean our offices, and care for our elderly. They're among those -- half the workforce and three fourths of low-wage workers -- who lack paid sick days.
As a Miami cook put it, "Every penny goes somewhere. I have no choice but to suck it up if I'm sick."
More than one-third of flu cases are transmitted in schools and workplaces. Those same Chicago researchers asked respondents, "Have you ever had to go to work when you were sick with a contagious illness like the flu?" Nearly 70 percent of those lacking paid sick days answered, "Yes."
Studies show that when sick workers stay home, the number of people affected by pandemic flu can be reduced by 15 to 34 percent, according to Jonathan Heller, director of Human Impact Partners.
"Having an effective leave policy is critical in preventing an office-wide outbreak of the flu," says John Challenger. "You want to encourage workers to stay home when they are sick so they do not spread illness to co-workers. You also want them to stay home to care for sick children so they are not forced to go to school and spread the virus to other kids."
Talk to public school teachers and nurses. They'll tell you how many children come to school sick, or can't get picked up if they fall ill during class because their parents have no paid sick time. They'll describe the heartbreak of having a child say, "Please don't call my mom. She'll get in trouble if you do." They'll give you examples of kids -- sometimes as young as eight years old -- who miss school to care for a younger sibling.
The majority of states reporting flu cases now say the outbreak is at "severe" levels. To avoid the spread of germs, we have to ensure that no one will lose income or a job for staying home sick.
If you live in one of the cities or states pushing for an earned sick days policy now, raise your voice to elected officials.
Do it for your kids. Make sure your child doesn't have to sit next to a classmate with the flu whose mom or dad couldn't risk staying home.
Do it for yourself. Even if you have paid sick days, you don't want to be served flu with your fries.
In an economy where more and more families are living paycheck to paycheck, we need paid sick days to make sure that a public health crisis doesn't become a financial crisis.
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