The Cost of Getting Sick

Cost of getting sickUntil I began working for myself, I always held jobs that included sick days as part of the package. I actually took it for granted and never really thought about the possibility that some people don’t get paid sick days as a benefit of their employment.

On the days I felt under the weather, or even mentally exhausted— (mental health day, anyone?) – I called in sick. To me, it was better to stay at home than to go to work and expose my coworkers to whatever illness I had, or to be held accountable for a less-than-stellar work performance.

Thousands of women in North Carolina and the rest of the country – 41 million to be exact – don’t have that option. If they wake up sick, they have to put one foot in front of the other and trudge into work. Imagine already barely making ends meet, and coming down with the flu. You either go to work and expose your co-workers and the general public to the germs—or you can’t make your rent that month.

I don’t have to tell you which option most women choose. We’ve got hidden super-powers, right? If forced to choose between infecting our coworkers or getting kicked out of our homes, we would work if at all humanly, or super-humanly, possible. It’s a problem called “presenteeism.” In the research, two out of every five employers identify it as a problem. One sick worker will likely infect 1.8 out of every 10 coworkers—and all that illness and low productivity will cost companies $180 billion dollars annually.

Research shows that adults without paid sick days are 1.5 times more likely to go to work with a contagious illness and twice as likely to send their sick child to school or daycare. And workers in food services, child care, and elder care – jobs that require frequent contact with the public – have some of the lowest rates of paid sick days access.

It’s easy to sit back and get angry with a sneezing and sniffling coworker who insists on coming into work, but consider this: missing three and a half days of work can cost a low-income family $280—the equivalent of a monthly food budget.

The irony is that the very people who don’t have access to sick days are the ones who don’t have extra financial resources to absorb that loss. According to a recent report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), only 28% of workers making $19,000 or less a year have access to paid sick days. Meanwhile, 83% of people making more than $65,000 a year have access to paid sick days.

This disparity grows even wider when you take a look at access rates by race. According to IWPR, 63% of white and 64% of black women have access to paid sick days. Only 51% of Hispanic women have access.

Coast to coast paid sick days momentum fails to reach North Carolina

In 2006, San Francisco became the first locality to pass paid sick days legislation soon followed by the District of Columbia and the state of Connecticut. In the last two years, paid sick days victories have happened in Portland, Jersey City, Newark, and New York City. There are close to two dozen active paid sick days campaigns across the country.

Here in North Carolina, paid sick days legislation has been introduced in the General Assembly since 2007. The “Healthy Families and Healthy Workplaces Act” would allow full- and part-time workers in North Carolina to earn paid sick time at the rate of one hour for every 30 hours worked, up to a maximum of seven days a year, or four days for workers at businesses with 10 or less employees.

The North Carolina Families Care Coalition worked to get this legislation re-introduced last session, but it didn’t go anywhere.

Jessica Rocha of the North Carolina Justice Center was among those working to get the Healthy Families and Healthy Workplaces Act passed. She told me that they don’t expect any progress to be made in this legislative session, but they hope to get new legislation introduced in 2015.

I asked her why it was so important. This is what she told me:

“I personally think that, while it might be a struggle and it might be a few years, having the right to paid sick leave is inevitable. I don’t know anyone who thinks a person should lose her job because she or her child are sick. I don’t know anyone who thinks a person should be evicted, or not have the money to eat because of caring for a sick loved one. In this regard, the right to earned paid sick days is just common sense.”

The battle for paid sick leave is a marathon and not a sprint, it seems.

While there is little evidence of these issues being resolved any time soon in our state, there have been some interesting developments on the federal level. The federal Healthy Families Act is gaining co-sponsors and President Obama made a historic call for paid sick days in his 2014 State of the Union Address.

This March, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a report that looked at the impact the country’s work-family policies are having on economic productivity and the health of our citizens. The research indicates work-family policies can improve the health of children, particularly newborns. In addition, these policies increase job-retention and productivity among workers. The savings from providing paid sick days outweigh the costs by more than $3.50 an hour.

I can now identify with the thousands in North Carolina who don’t have paid sick days. As an independent contractor, I can think of only one, maybe two days that I’ve not worked in the past four years because I was sick. If I don’t work, I don’t get paid. But don’t feel too sorry for me. When I do work, I’m fairly compensated (most of the time), but we need to continue this fight. It’s a fight for equality, public health, and an economy that works for all of us.

This month, we are partnering with The White House Summit for Working Families to spread the word that when women thrive, families and communities thrive. Have you been forced to choose between your health and your paycheck? Has there been a time when paid sick days allowed you to stay healthy while keeping your job? Share your story




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