If there’s a silver lining to this year’s swine flu outbreak, it’s that more attention is being paid to the issue of mandatory paid sick leave, say the powers that be at the National Partnership of Women and Families.

The org’s president Debra Ness said recently: “The recent scare over swine flu should have taught us that urging workers to stay home when they are sick is not effective if workers have to forfeit pay and risk their jobs when they miss work. A minimum standard of paid sick days will allow workers to stay home when they are ill or need to care for a sick child, without jeopardizing their economic security.”

True enough, but what about employers’ economic security? Opponents of mandatory paid sick leave long have said that such policies would be too costly.

Too costly in money, perhaps, but new research from NPWF says not having paid sick leave would be much more costly in lives and illness.

The report finds that more than one-third of flu cases are transmitted at schools and workplaces. Infected workers staying home could reduce the spread of a pandemic flu virus by up to 34%, according to the study. Without preventative strategies like paid sick days, a serious flu outbreak could kill more than 2 million people.
Paid sick days will also protect the public from diseases carried by sick restaurant workers, more than 85% of whom cannot take paid time off from work when ill.  From 2003 to 2007, nearly 122,000 people fell ill from foodborne disease outbreaks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nursing home residents, visitors and workers would also benefit from paid sick days, which would help prevent avoidable hospitalizations and deaths. Between 30 and 45 California nursing homes would be spared norovirus outbreaks each year under a new paid sick days law.

NPWF advocates passage of the Healthy Families Act, which would let employees at firms with at least 15 employees earn up to seven paid sick days a year.
Currently, 48% of private-sector workers don’t have access to paid, job-protected sick days. “Without paid sick days, millions of hard-working employees find themselves in a health-care Catch-22,” Ness said. “The Healthy Families Act offers a way out of that dilemma.”

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