Sick Leave in the U.S.

Sick Leave in the U.S.

Lack of sick leave in the U.S. can make outbreaks, like the coronavirus, worse. One of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of illness is to encourage employees to stay home when they are sick, says the CDC. However, the United States does not have a national paid sick leave policy, so many companies do not offer paid sick days. Without paid sick leave, taking off work because of illness remains a financial sacrifice for workers. As a result, employees are more likely to come into work sick, delaying treatment for themselves and exposing coworkers to illness. On average, 80% of people say they will go to work sick, and when they do, they not only spread germs to others but can cost a company lost productivity.

sick leave in u.s.

States Increase Coverage

Some states have enacted laws requiring employers to provide paid time off. As of 2019, eleven states have instituted laws (of varying degrees) to offer paid sick leave to workers. (Arizona, California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington) and the District of Columbia.


Lack of Sick Leave and Outbreaks

Past outbreaks offer insight into how sick day policies can accelerate the rapid spread of viruses. For example, during the outbreak of H1N1 swine flu in 2009,  8 million workers contagious with H1N1 did not take time off of work. This led to as many as 7 million additional cases of the virus. In another outbreak of the norovirus, the CDC found 53% of all norovirus outbreaks traced back to ill food workers. Considering 79% of food industry workers don’t get sick leave, this is another example of how illness can be prevented with paid sick days.

As of February 2020, the flu has infected 36 million Americans according to the CDC. Research shows the flu virus can spread through an office in a matter of hours. This is important since the new coronavirus is very similar to the flu – however, new data estimates it is 20 times more lethal than the flu.  As the death toll approaches 2,000 the coronavirus rapidly spread to more than 60,000 people worldwide. In the United States, there are now 15 cases of the disease.


Advice to Companies

While the risk for contracting coronavirus in the U.S. is still set at LOW, it is easy to see the importance of paid sick days in order to stop illnesses from spreading. A work environment requires a significant amount of time spent indoors together. Avoiding close contact with people who are sick is often impossible. “If an employee is sick, encourage them to stay home, but not at the cost of losing pay. People will still come into work even if they are sick and unproductive since their priority is to get their paycheck,” says Dr. Adrian Cotton. What’s more, data shows working sick costs the U.S. economy $160 billion annually in lost productivity.

The National Partnership for Women & Families believes that one of the most effective ways for companies to support employees and prevent illness is to support paid sick days as a standalone benefit outside of just having one bucket of paid time off (PTO).  By providing dedicated paid sick leave, companies not only add to work-life balance that every worker is after and deserves, but they help stop the spread of illness.


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