Logic and science agree that sick people should avoid spreading their illness. Still, staying home remains an unrealistic option for some 40 million workers who have no access to paid sick leave, a phenomenon researchers dub ‘presenteeism.’
The perils of presenteeism? Workers with no paid sick leave often skip preventive health measures, which can ultimately lead to more time off the job for emergency care or for treatment of a more serious condition. What’s more, the habit of sick employees still coming into work can have a domino effect on customers of public-facing businesses like restaurants, grocery stores, child-care centers, and medical facilities. In 2008, for example, 500 people became violently ill when a restaurant employee came to work despite being infected with norovirus. The direct costs for this outbreak were estimated between $130,000 and $300,000, but a public-health incident like this can potentially cost a business millions through negative publicity, lost productivity, or medical bills.
Few laws mandate paid sick leave
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, among companies with 99 or fewer employees, a little more than half of workers have access to paid sick leave. This compares to about 65% of American workers overall who get paid time off for illness. The number of paid sick days a worker gets per year varies by organization, but the national average is eight. Employees may accrue or earn them with hours worked and/or time with the company, and the average U.S. worker takes 3.5 paid sick days per year.
Currently, no federal rules stipulate that employers must provide paid sick leave, but a few cities and states have recently passed legislation mandating it within their jurisdictions. In 2006, San Francisco passed the first citywide law for paid sick days, and since then cities like Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Newark, N.J., have followed suit. Connecticut passed the nation’s first statewide law, effective Jan. 1, 2012, and other states, like New York and New Jersey, have introduced similar bills. Most existing and proposed laws don’t apply until a company reaches a certain minimum threshold for number of employees, anywhere from five to 50. Just recently, New York City altered its existing paid-sick leave law so that it would apply to businesses with five or more employees instead of the previous 15 or more; the action expanded coverage to some 500,000 additional workers.
Conversely, some states have proposed legislation to prevent cities from creating such ‘right-to-sick-leave’ laws, as opponents of the law fear it will promote absenteeism and force businesses to cut pay, hours, or jobs. A manager for the National Federation of Independent Businesses says his organization’s 330,000 members indicate in surveys that they don’t favor mandates because they would prefer to set their own individual policies.
Little buyer’s remorse
Though many small businesses might be leery of mandated paid sick leave, few end up opposing the policy once they have lived with it.
Eileen Appelbaum at the Center for Economic Policy and Research, and CUNY Professor Ruth Milkman surveyed employers 18 months after Connecticut passed its sick-leave law. They found that the majority of employers reported no effect on operations and cost increases totaling less than three percent. The researchers concluded that more than three-fourths of the state’s employers said they were “very supportive or somewhat supportive” of that state’s paid-sick-leave law.
Jennifer Piallat, owner of the San Francisco-based bistro Zazie, acknowledged that she had been dubious of the city’s new law mandating paid sick leave, fearing her employees would abuse it. “When I initially calculated the potential cost, it was under the assumption that every employee would take off all the days that they had earned,” she explained in a 2011 hearing about a similar California-wide law. But instead she said the reality pleasantly surprised her.
“My employees have used paid sick days responsibly and have not taken advantage of them,” Piallat explained. “They have used the time only when they have an actual medical need, which is less than the total amount of time that they accrue.” In fact, a follow-up study on the law’s impact in San Francisco found that employees used only an average of three out of five days ever year and a quarter of workers used zero days. In the end, Piallat concluded: “Paid sick days have helped my workforce be healthy and productive and have helped my bottom line.”
Research finds many advantages, few downsides
As Piallat points out, there’s a synergy to the benefits paid sick leave provides to employees as well as businesses. Gordon Lafer, a political economist, noted in an Oct. 2013 report for the Economic Policy Institute that having no access to paid sick leave can expose employees to a huge financial risk: “A typical family of four with two working parents who have no paid sick leave will have wiped out its entire health-care budget for the year after just three days of missed work.” This kind of instability on the homefront can carry over to the workplace, resulting in increased anxiety and lowered morale.
These findings dovetail with those of a 2009 CEPR report, “Contagion Nation: A Comparison of Paid Sick-Day Policies in 22 Countries,” that found having paid sick leave gives businesses an edge: “Firms that provide paid sick days and leave tend to have lower job turnover rates, lower recruitment and training costs, lower unnecessary absenteeism, and a higher level of productivity than firms that do not offer these kinds of benefits.”
In a recent analysis of a proposed earned sick leave law in Illinois, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates the policy would cost employers about as much as a 10-cent-per-hour raise for each employee. This, however, is more than regained in the long run, since the study concludes a business providing paid sick time stands to save 24 cents per-employee per-hour. In addition, the BLS provides employer-cost data about sick leave in its 2013 report on employee compensation.
Champions of paid sick time emphasize that people should not have to come to work sick because they can’t afford to lose the pay or in some cases, fear discipline for missing time. They should not have to choose between job and health – their own, their children’s, or a family member’s. Though presenteeism persists, change seems imminent as experts and data agree that paid sick time not only protects public health and the economic stability of families, it also makes good business and economic sense.