04/30/2009 09:28 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sick System in the U.S. Helps Spread Swine Flu

Co-authored by Heidi Hartmann, President of the Institute for Women's Policy Research, Washington,DC

As of today, at least 132 cases of the swine flu have been confirmed in the United States, and hundreds more in other countries, prompting the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare the situation a "public health emergency of international concern." The U.S. government followed suit, clearing the way for the distribution of antiviral drugs from a federal stockpile.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has recommended that those who are sick should stay home from work or school to avoid infecting others.

Great. We're all for that, but there's one little problem. Fewer than half of workers in the U.S. have paid sick days, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington. What's worse, only one in three are able to take their sick days to care for ill children. Many are low wage workers who not only lose wages if they stay home - they risk losing their jobs. Workers who come into direct contact with the public, such as restaurant workers, child care workers, and hotel employees, are among the least likely to have paid sick days.

It doesn't take the proverbial rocket scientist to figure out that workers who lack paid sick time are more likely to go to work with a communicable illness, and parents who cannot stay home with a sick child are more likely to send them to school or day care. Mexico closed its schools - the first step that any public health service recommends at the onset of an epidemic. According to Dr. Jody Heymann, founding director of the McGill Institute for Health and Social Policy, Mexico combines paid sick leave with child care through its social insurance system. At least 139 other countries provide some paid sick leave to workers as a matter of national law.

Some 300 schools in the U.S. have closed too. But there's one little difference - no U.S. national or state laws require that workers have paid sick days. That means parents are scrambling for makeshift child care arrangements, missing work and pay in a recession, or in worst cases having to make a choice between leaving the kids home alone or losing their jobs.

People who go to work or school while sick may infect coworkers, customers, and classmates, resulting in even more infections. With a virus capable of producing a pandemic, this pattern of infection is a serious problem, and not only because of the deaths and panic it can cause. The monetary cost to employers and families runs to the millions of dollars. News reports are already saying that the scare alone could devastate the U.S. travel industry, something we surely don't need at a time when the recession has already taken big bite out of revenue.

The swine flu situation raises the question of the public health costs of failing to provide paid sick days. And there is overwhelming popular support - four out of five Americans think that paid sick days should be a basic labor standard. The Healthy Families Act, which requires that paid sick time be provided by employers with fifteen or more employees, is likely to be reintroduced in Congress sometime next month. Unless and until it is passed, however, the U.S. must continue to combat potential pandemics with almost half of its workers unable to take a paid sick day.

The Obama administration has held press conferences and declared a public health emergency already. Good. But a far more serious emergency is the lack of sick leave that propagates the virus as surely as food service workers sneezing into your food because they're too poor or too scared for their jobs to stay home. Pundits say this is a time politically for big ideas. Clearly, this is one idea whose time has come.