BPW Foundation's Women Misbehavin' Blog

Well behaved women never make history

The Real Value of Swine Flu

Posted by egehl on May 11, 2009

Throughout the swine flu craze of the past few weeks it never occurred to me what the policy ramifications of a national health scare could be beyond the obvious public health issues.

swine-fluRecently the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) issued a statement to remind the public that many workers do not have paid sick leave:  “Challenge in Curbing the Spread of Swine Flu: Half of Workforce Lacks Paid Sick Days.” This means that if a large amount of the population caught the swine flu, or any illness for that matter, that people would not be able to stay at home for fear of not being able to pay their bills or feed their family. And what happens if a child’s school is closed? Parents have to make the tough decision to either stay at home and not get paid or leave their 8 year old home alone.

While the connection is obvious, public health officials and the media have failed to recognize the ramifications of a swine flu outbreak in the workplace.  IWPR’s timely statement makes a poignant and important point that as officials try to prevent the spread of this new flu they must realize that many workers do not have the ability to leave their jobs in the event of an illness, much less a dire one.   According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other data conducted by IWPR, they have found that less than half of workers have paid sick days and only one in three are able to utilize sick days to care for sick children.

Given today’s economy and high joblessness rate, everyone has a mounting fear about losing their job.  However workers without paid sick days are at an even greater disadvantage.  If they stay at home they face a higher risk of losing their job and their pay will significantly decrease.  Many workers without paid sick leave are hourly therefore a day not working means significantly less compensation.  And right now familiesespecially cannot afford even a day without pay.  As a result, workers will go to their jobs regardless of how they feel, and parents who cannot stay home with a sick child are more likely to send sick children to school or day care.

Ironically, workers who work in direct contact with the public and would be the most likely to pass on an illness like the swine flu, such as restaurant workers, child care workers and hotel employees, are among the least likely to have paid sick days.

In 2007, Congress first introduced the Healthy Families Act which would require that employers with fifteen or more employees guarantee workers up to seven paid sick days  so that employees can recover from a short-term illness, care for a sick family member, seek routine medical care or seek assistance related to domestic violence. paidsickdays

The Healthy Families Act has not been introduced in the 111th Congress yet and in light of the swine flu epidemic now would be an opportune time.  In addition to raising awareness in Congress through this federal bill, the Administration is also being reminded that they must keep in mind the state of workplaces when issuing recommendations.  A letter written by Senator Kennedy (D-MA) and Representative DeLauro (D-CT) was sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to call attention to their recommendation that workers stay home to prevent the spread of swine flu. But how can they when nearly half of private sector workers have no paid sick leave? (Click here to find out how the government may be taking care of their own.)

Often it takes current events to spark policy to finally move forward and I think the correlation between the issue of paid sick leave and the swine flu makes for one of those times.  The swine flu will not be the last time there’s a public health scare. If government wants to fully prepare citizens it must think beyond the normal confines of how to prevent and treat illnesses.  They must look at the broader picture of how diseases are spread and the workplace is ground zero.

Unless workers are able to stay at home, an outbreak worse than the swine flu could spread like wild fire.  Everyday illness should be reason enough to pass the Healthy Families Act but the urgency has not been felt on Capitol Hill.  Therefore let the swine flu be a reminder that epidemics can happen and it’s better to prepare now than when a worse pandemic occurs.

photo credit / photo credit

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One Response to “The Real Value of Swine Flu”

  1. […] do not offer paid sick leave and thousands of employees lack adequate coverage to stay home.  In a previous YWM blog, the issue of paid sick leave was brought up when the swine flu first broke o…  The issue was raised that as government officials prepare for a possible epidemic they must […]

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