Whether it’s the novel coronavirus, flu or common cold, the gold standard of preventing the spread of contagious illness is to wash your hands (thoroughly and often), cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing and to stay home when you’re sick. That last piece of advice is simple, effective and frustratingly hard to follow in the modern workplace.
Many Americans are reluctant to take a sick day. At times, the pressure to show up is self-imposed. Often, it’s part of the workplace culture — powering through the day with a runny nose and 102 degree fever a mark of true commitment. For the millions of U.S. workers without paid sick time, staying home is as much of financial decision as it is a health one. Approximately 64 percent of private-sector American workers have access to paid sick days, according to the Economic Policy Institute, but higher-wage workers are much more likely than lower-wage workers to have that benefit. The report found that 87 percent of private-sector workers in the top 10 percent of wages had the ability to earn paid sick days, compared with just 27 percent of workers in the bottom 10 percent. For lower-income workers without sick pay, missing work can mean not paying the bills that month.
Employees who show up ill are less productive and run the risk of passing germs on to their co-workers or customers. An unappealing prospect in any setting, it’s downright unsanitary in workplaces that serve the public. At least half of restaurant and hospital employees have reported going to work with a cold or flu, according to a Harvard study.
Working parents of young children are particularly hard hit. Toddlers average six to nine illnesses a year. And, unlike with toys, they’re not afraid to share. Mom and Dad are likely to come down with something too. Even if they don’t, someone will have to stay home and take care of the kids. Many a parent has faced the morning dilemma of deciding whether or not a child is well “enough” to go to school or daycare.
Last spring, Governor Janet Mills signed into law a bill guaranteeing many Maine workers access to paid sick time. The law applies to workers at companies that have 10 or more employees. Those workers can earn an hour of sick time for every 40 hours they work, up to a maximum of 40 hours a year. The time can be used for an illness or family emergency. Seasonal businesses and those with fewer than 10 workers are exempt from the new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2021. The legislation is a nice compromise between the administration and business interests.
What also needs to change is attitudes. Staying home when you’re sick is not slacking off; it’s smart. Each of us has a role to play in protecting public health.