Swine Flu in the Workplace: No sick days? Sneeze into your elbow

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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Let’s connect on Twitter: @AnnPietrangelo


Photo: Centers for Disease Control


Abo Ahmed r.
Abo r7 years ago

When being sick and the Dr. writes a sick leaveit is a right that employee to have it ...when having elevated temp. you need rest at home sick vaccation.

Elizabeth M.
Elizabeth M8 years ago

I've been there. At one time in my life, I was working 80 hours a week, for three different agencies, and I had no benefits with any of them. If I called in sick I had to worry that I could be fired or they would not call me the next time they needed coverage. It was a lousy way to live.

Crystal T.
Crystal T8 years ago

They want us to stay home for 7 days if we contract the flu, BUT THEY HAVE NO INTENTION OF PAYING FOR ANY SICK DAYS. Yes, I can have them, at my own expense. I'm already on cut wages... I'm afraid that if I don't work, I'm not going to be able to pay the mortgage, so I'll go to work unless I'm so sick, I can't function or they throw me out. Someone would have been violating the rules to have gotten me sick in the first place, so why do I have to be the one paying for it? I feel for my co-workers and wouldn't want to get them sick, but they don't care that they are paying me cut wages and no sick time or benefits.

The way to solve this? Universal Health Care and paid sick days.

Bev M.
Bev M8 years ago

I have sick leave but I work in an environment where many employees are "disciplined" for using sick leave, even with proof of illness.

The office I work in isn't as bad as some but add the that the ridiculous "work ethic" some people have...coming in coughing and drooling to somehow prove their worth...

I'm sick I stay home...unfortunately my illness is often due to others who refuse to stay home.

I've had jobs in the past with no paid sick leave and I feel bad for all those still in that situation.

Sarah D.
Sarah D8 years ago

If you're sick, you shouldn't work or go out until you're well again.

Wendy Broad
Past Member 8 years ago

I work in retail. Why is it that I would be expected to stay home when I'm sick, but customers are allowed to shop when they are sick, and cough, sneeze and breathe all over me while I do my job? The manners of some people are just non-existant. They don't even turn away to cough. I get paid sick days, but they are all used up for this year, thanks to the thoughtless customers spreading their germs. I am currently off work with upper respiratory infection, and will not be paid for 3 days this week. On top of that, I have to buy medications. What I'm trying to get across here is my disgust that people just don't care about common courtesy any more, just so long as they are ok.

Carol H.
Past Member 8 years ago

The thing is if you take good care of yourself and eat the right foods and take good vitamins that really help you and not garbage from GNC you will stay well but even all that I do for myself doesn't work I would stay home if I were to become ill from H1N1 because it wouldn't be fair to everyone else.

Heather A.
Heather A8 years ago

Companies really should be changing their policies about sick leave, at least until the H1N1 storm has blown over. Would they do that? How many big companies actually think that protecting the public from a pandemic is more important than making money?

Here at my university, they've changed how you get authorized to miss a class or an exam, so that if you have the flu you can declare it yourself without getting a doctor's note. That's considerate. Sure, it means that they won't be able to look into every absence as closely, but it also means that people with H1N1 (and there have been a few already) can stay home where they won't infect anyone.

Lynn Schenning
Lynn Schenning8 years ago

Unfortunately the demise of sick-days in the workplace stems in part from the extensive abuse of this benefit over the years. All too often these days have been viewed as extra vacation days to be used regardless of need due to an actual illness. We all know people who have taken "mental health" days (i.e. vacation). And obviously none of the bloggers here have ever been responsible for adjusting schedules or work loads to ensure that an employee's unanticipated absence does not adversely impact co-workers, clients, or business operations. Before blaming greedy corporate America for "forcing" sick employees to come to work as expected, I suggest that one consider the negative consequences of liberal sick leave policies.

Mary M.
Mary M8 years ago

In the 70's I worked for a co.that gave u 7 sick days - 2 for 1st 3 qtrs of the yr,from Oct to Dec. only 1. If you didn't use them in those quarters you lost them. Then one day I get sick in Dec. with the flu, I had to come to work the next day. My boss said, "how come you came in if you're so sick?" Well, because I don't get paid and I needed the money as a single mom at the time. All year I wasn't sick, I lost those 6 days, which I could have used when I was really sick. Management didn't care.