There’s the cashier who sneezes into her hand before handing you your change; and the guy one cubicle over who sounds like he’s hacking up a lung; and the nose blower stuffing a tissue into her pocket before waiting on a customer. You can’t be sure if they have the seasonal flu, swine flu (H1N1), or a simple allergy, but you silently curse them for not staying home with their germs…. but maybe they are not to blame.
Maybe the fact that 40 percent of the U.S. private-sector workforce can’t take paid leave without advance notice (NY Times) is to blame. Paid sick leave for the service industries and for small businesses is rare, and fear of employer retribution or perhaps losing one’s job in a poor economy make it all but impossible for some people to stay home, no matter how sick they are. For these people, staying home from work due to illness means less take-home pay. For families already living paycheck to paycheck, struggling to meet basic needs — health care coverage among them — staying home is not an option.
All the best advice about the swine flu includes the admonition to stay home to avoid spreading the latest pandemic, and it is solid advice. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that “you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone (without the use of fever-reducing medicine.) Keep away from others as much as possible. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. Put your used tissue in the waste basket. Then, clean your hands, and do so every time you cough or sneeze.”
Unfortunately, the financial consequences of not showing up for work can be catastrophic. With plenty of unemployed folks eager to take your job, who’s going to risk taking time off?
Women’s Rights blogger Liz O’Donnell recently wrote about the extra economic burden placed on women. “More than half of all women workers hold sales, clerical and service jobs. These jobs rarely come with the flex benefits of working from home. Taking sick leave isn’t always an option either. Approximately 57 million Americans, 22 million of them women, have no paid sick days.”
Twenty-two million working women not only hesitate to take time off for their own illnesses, but many bear the sole responsibility of caring for sick children and other family members.
There are several hot spots across the nation with pending legislation on the issue of paid sick leave. There are no federal requirements for paid sick leave, although the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), requires unpaid sick leave.
The CDC also recommends that we sneeze into our elbow or shoulder rather than on our hands to lessen the chance of spreading germs. Sounds good, but that’s just not enough to combat the spread of H1N1 in the workplace.
One can only hope that despite the tough economy, the H1N1 pandemic will prompt employers to go that extra mile in encouraging their employees to stay home, rather than infect other staff members and customers. In the long run, it’s better for the bottom line to let employees keep their germs at home.
Have you experienced swine flu in the workplace? How has your employer handled it? Please tell your story in the comment section below.
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Photo: Centers for Disease Control