Swine flu: working sick and shared responsibilities

One of the things we are told is not the responsibility of government but an "individual responsibility" is not working sick or sending our kids to school when they are sick. I pointed out that the ability to do this may depend on others, particularly employers. Employers also have a responsibility, not just employees.

The US has some of the worst sick leave and child care policies among industrialized nations. It is nothing short of a scandal. And now these non-policies have the potential to have major public health consequences. The US labor movement is querying its workers about this. Here is an example of such in inquiry by the United Steel Workers (USW):

The USW is working with the broader labor movement to evaluate how the current outbreak of swine flu (H1N1 flu) may affect our members in their workplaces, and assess employer policies and programs that might impact workers (and their families) during this outbreak.

Public health agencies are requesting that people with flu symptoms stay home from work and that parents not send children with flu symptoms to school. At the same time, many employers have absentee policies where workers get “negative points” or discipline when they miss work - including for illness or to care for the illness of a family member.

We are currently gathering some examples of these types of policies where workers are penalized for such absences.

If you are familiar with such a policy and have access to an electronic or written copy, please send it to Sharon Thompson in the USW’s Health, Safety and Environment Department (email to sthompson@usw.org or send by fax to 412-562-2584).

That's another thing about a pandemic. It lays bare a society's weaknesses.

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The advocacy organization Moms Rising (www.momsrising.org) recently made a similar point. They used the current outbreak to rally support for a petition aimed at getting a bill through Congress requiring that workers be allowed to earn paid sick leave. That's a pretty good long-term solution for most people (though recent job changers would still be left out in the cold). But it may be too late for such a law to make much of an impact in the short term.

If this impending pandemic gets turns out to be very virulent, some form of emergency legislation might be required to provide government benefits for those who do the right thing and stay home while they're sick. My family's health is worth a few tax dollars to me.

I know that at least one of the major airlines has a policy in which employees get "points" for calling in sick. Too many points and they lose their job. Even a single point in a quarter and they lose some of their employee perks like their free airline tickets. So many of them have to be really really sick before they will call in.

Actually, school districts have the same issue because states mandate how many days they hold school. Fortunately in Texas, the state came back and said that Swine Flu days do not have to be made up which freed the districts to make the decision without having to take that into account.

Blue collar world may be different, but my experience in the white collar world at many employers is that people are generally understanding about missing work due to childcare issues.

I worked in a bank; there was no written policy against taking sick days, but it was commonly known that taking too many (like ANY) would lead to termination. And taking a day for any reason other than one's own illness (like to care for a sick child) was counted as unexcused absence, likewise leading to termination. This type of attitude was repeated at several different companies, as per friends.

In my experience, white collar jobs aren't much better than blue collar. Just a different type of work clothes.

I think it has more to do with customer service vs. "office" work. Whenever I have worked in an office with out any customer contact, sick time has been pretty lax. Whenever I have worked in an environment where I have had direct contact with customers, my employers were also pretty strict on the sick time.

The world might learn something from the Scandinavian model. Not that it doesn't have drawbacks, but employees, and parents with young children are very well protected by the Scandinavian systems. Each parent has the right to be away from work for up to 10 days a year due to a sick child (on full pay) with no negative consequences for the employment contract. That is i addition to a lot of other perks and benefits.

By Alf Refsum (not verified) on 01 May 2009 #permalink

I'm very lucky for an American. My company is organized as a "virtual workplace", which means that almost anyone in the organization (apart from janitors or security) can work from home if needed. We still have a leave policy where too much unplanned PTO can get you in trouble, but people generally only use their PTO when they are absolutely too sick to function and can't work from home. I'm really impressed with this policy, especially now with the spectre of a pandemic in our area. We've been given the nod to work from home if anyone in our family is exposed or symptomatic, and I expect that if/when things get worse the company will increasingly shift to people working at home as a social distancing measure.

As someone who once worked in a restaurant as a server I know that staying home sick is hard to do, and doing it more than three times could cost you your job. In jobs such as ones that deal with a large number of people in crowded areas and their food I think that something definitely needs to be done about some restaurants unwillingness to allow for sick days. I know when you are short a server it puts a lot of extra strain on everyone else, but you still shouldn't force a sick person to work if they have the potential to infect so many other people.

Anne: I'm even luckier. I'm a full-time telecommuter and my wife owns her our business in another part of the house. Also, once if I ran out of PTO, I could always use Unpaid TO.

My problem though is that my management likes to do needless business traveling at times.

As a temp. I am going to be facing a real moral and financial dilemma should I get sick. I have no sick leave and even if the client doesn't hold it against me that I take time off, I can't really afford it. The county that contracts for my services doesn't make it easy for me at all. Sub-living wages, but I am considered "essential" personnel. The reason for this is I work the front desk. Of course working the front desk also means I do the most damage should I come in with something contagious.

The difference isn't white-collar versus blue-collar, but "hourly" type work versus creative work. If you're a phone-rep, factory worker or MD, you're getting paid for being there -- for doing a fairly repetitive job. If you're a programmer, a researcher or a marketing specialist, you're getting paid for thinking up something new -- the hours it takes you is your business instead of your employers.

Of course, you're right. Social costs are social costs, and no magical "market" will take care of this until we find some way to apportion "sick day" rights in some way -- I doubt we'll be able to privatize that commons.

"I know that at least one of the major airlines has a policy in which employees get "points" for calling in sick."

Not the pilots. If it is a nonunion batch of employees, sure enough. Pilots covered by a union are not even allowed to be asked WHY they are ill. They call in and say they are sick. They get X amount of sick leave per year and if they use it up, they do not get paid for the trip. They have to call in well once their illness is over with or else they are charged more sick leave.

While my employer (the corporate entity) has strict sick days guidelines, on the front lines, if you have a communicable disease, stay the hell home, we don't want you infecting us or our patients. Give us a doctor's note and we'll take care of the rest. Insanely grateful for that.

/had the flu once
//couldn't work for 1.5 weeks.
///gave them a doctor's note, life was good.

I think all the talk that this is a "mild pandemic" confuses the picture. It seems hard to grasp that this is a problem, though not as bad as the Andromeda Strain, can cause serious disruption. The more I look at Mexico, the more I realize this.

I worry that employers will think that just because people aren't dropping dead all around us, then it is business as usual. I think it would help to have some forceful statements from the White House that tells employers that workers who report sick for 2 weeks are doing everyone a big favor.

I just read a comment comparing this to the "Phony War" talk of 1939 in the UK. That was the era when Britain and Germany were officially in a state of war, but before little active fighting started. By 1940 it didn't seem so phony anymore.

Right now this is the "Phony Pandemic", but there's a big chance it won't stay that way.

Just to inject a new thread in this discussion, in the construction industry sick days are unheard of. The relevance is who is doing the subcontracted work in hospital renovations? Furthermore in New England these folks are not even asked, let alone required to have medical insurance. To me the lack of ICP training, the denial of sick days, and the opting out of the health insurance system are a potentially lethal combination.
Ct has just had a paid sick days lobbying effort which proposes a mandatory banking of hours. Hopefully this can be a past issue soon.

By Tim Sullivan (not verified) on 01 May 2009 #permalink

May I make a prediction here and suggest that based on these comments, which are likely representative of most employees in America, that America is at a higher risk of disruption and more deadly influenza cases in the future (near or far) than other countries.

That is, our resistance to isolate ourselves when sick, and business practices that encourage them, is likely to create a more virulent strain in America.

And we worry about the mixing of H1N1 in countries where bird flu is epidemic!

By phytosleuth (not verified) on 01 May 2009 #permalink

What I have noticed is that many of these "policies" are not "official" but part of the workplace culture at a specific place of work. As an example, I am a salaried worker, and yet I have been threatened with dismissal if I didn't adhere to a 8-5 40 hour work week (as opposed to the flexibly scheduled 45-50 I'd been working before). Taking time off is extraordinarily problematical. Nothing in writing, per se, nothing I can take to HR. And yet I work at an ostensibly enlightened place, with all the "correct" policies and in California, which has strong worker rights, and so on. All it takes is a bad supervisor with enough power allotted to them and you are screwed.

The fear of losing your job will trump all other considerations, even legal rights, for many people. Especially in this economy.

My husband works as a flight attendant for an airline that puts workers on some sort of probation if they call out sick too frequently. Can you imagine how effectively a sick flight attendant could spread a virus?

One thing that might help is a grassroots effort to publicize employers who have good sick-leave policies for their customer-contact workers; promote the notion that if you're worried about catching the flu, you can shop/visit there without much worry. That avoids the potential liability issues of trying to give negative publicity to employers with bad policies (who are likely to make a DMCA complaint to your ISP and get your page pulled on grounds of "trademark infringment"; never mind that the DMCA doesn't cover trademark infringment and that the Lanham Act, which does, specifically exempts mention in comment).

To the person above who said phone-reps have to be physically there, that's not true anymore. A lot of companies have quit their centralized call center and have the call center people work out of a home office. I do understand about other professions and having to be there physically.

For the past few days, when going out, I have been considering which places are the safest. Like there is a small natural grocery I shop at sometimes. The people in there are more likely to be concerned about health (I know because I talk to them and they have almost no turnover) and not go to work sick than say the average Kroger/Safeway/Albertson's employee so they are more likely to get my business right now. I do think service businesses especially restaurants would get more business if they adopted and publicized their sick work policies.

Concerning taking time off, for a while I did children's mental health case management. I worked with some really sick kids. They could be falling into the deep-end of mental illness and I would be begging their parents to take some time off so they could be there for their kids, take them to appointments, do what they could to keep them out of the hospitals which felt like such a failure to the kids... at least three of 12 moms (most of these were single parent households) were terrified to take time off work. Missing work was the surest way to loose a job and see their family plunged into even worse instability. I would write them letters citing the family medical leave act, but in each case those bottom of the job market jobs (call centers, office management and junk retail jobs) were chancy if the person tried to take time off. -- That's nothing but glorified slavery!

By Sppechless (not verified) on 01 May 2009 #permalink

I wonder how this will interact with closing schools to stop the spread of the flu. If you close my kids' school, we'll be fine, because my wife stays home and I can work from home as needed. But for a lot of people, closing their kids' schools means someone has to take a lot of sick leave, or find someone else to watch their kids on short notice, at the same time many other people are trying to find the same thing. I wonder if the result will be a lot of kids still being concentrated together, just at some impromptu daycare or stay-at-home neighbor's house instead of at school.

By albatross (not verified) on 01 May 2009 #permalink

My employer (a New Zealand university) allows unlimited sick leave (requiring a doctor's note after a couple of days), unless chronic illness means you can't do your job and then a termination is negotiated. I can take sick leave to look after sick dependent family members too. They found people take less sick leave under this system; why? Because when they have an entitlement, some will take it all every year even if they're not sick.

By Xenithrys (not verified) on 01 May 2009 #permalink

My husband works in the gaming industry, hundreds of employees and thousands of customers there on a daily basis crammed under one roof. With numerous 'probable' flu cases being reported in nearby areas, I certainly hope the decision makers have some sort of plan, but so far there is no indication of one. It's business as usual and I am very worried...especially since, as I understand it, the contagious stage can begin a day or two before the symptoms.

My husband's Fortune 500 company has a policy that penalizes employees for calling in sick. The ironic part is that he works in the healthcare industry!

Xenithrys: my sick leave (like a lot of US employers) is now called Personal Leave. You can use it for whatever you want although I keep finding co-workers who don't know that. The only difference between it and vacation is that it expires every year whereas vacation is carried over.

GeorgeT: It's called Paid Time Off (PTO) at my husband's company and the employees still get dinged for using it if the time off is "unscheduled." Since most people aren't able to schedule their illnesses, they end up getting penalized for being sick.

As someone else pointed out, restaurant and food service workers often cannot take sick days. It can cost you your job. Ironic, considering that serving food while ill is an excellent way to spread disease. Many states have laws prohibiting food service employees from working while ill, but these laws are almost completely ignored in the industry.

I feel bad for you cousins in the US, what a terrible dilemma you face.

In the UK we are entitled to sick leave. Generally speaking this means up to a week of self-certified illness at any one time, after which a doctor's line must be presented, up to a maximum of 60 days per annum after which pay is reduced to statuatory minimum. Our holiday entitlement is normally in the region of 20-30 days too, although I don't think we have as many public holidays per year (average around 5 days plus 4 total at Easter and Xmas here).

I am fortunate to work for an employer - office-based - who pays at full rate when an employee is ill (I had a sick day this week due to an injury sustained last week and wasn't penalised for this - result was injury healed quicker and I could function full-on again). The majority don't milk this, we have a work ethic that mitigates against such.

My boyfriend is not so fortunate, his position is that he receives statuatory sick pay at £105 per week where he normally earns £500 per week, although his previous crappy employer did not fulfil their legal duties in this respect and he got nothing. His job is customer-facing engineering, and he'll go into work, spread it around while losing his temper at 25% efficiency, until he can't get out of bed. Genius.

On the upside if we both get laid out at least my wages will still pay the mortgage and all essential bills (and if I croak he's sorted - I haven't told him this though, hah!).

Maybe it's time for a change in the US, and maybe this will be a turning point. It's an ill wind etc., now you've been released from the Repulican stranglehold that came across as lunacy to the rest of the civilized world, there could be some good comes of it.

I agree that cultural changes are necessary. K-12 students are rewarded for perfect attendance, which pretty much guarantees coming to school sick. In many workplaces, you are expected to show up unless you are VERY sick. Absences may or may not impact you materially, but people try to fit in. The best outcome of the H1N1 outbreak may be rational changes in both law and workplace culture.

@ Dizzy
Thanks for including us in your definition of the civilized world, despite the lunacy.

Even without punitive policies, people hate to let down their co-workers. So they tend to work even when sick, and that backfires when the illness sweeps the company. My SO's office has flu going around but we think it's just the usual variety.

But with restaurants, etc., my friends talk about the flexibility: managers can call in someone else for an extra shift if they get a little warning.