To Work or Not to Work – That is the Question

Many Americans face a difficult choice when they get sick  –  Do I go to work or do I stay home?  A recent article posted on CNN’s website suggests that it is better for workers to stay home when they are ill and gives three reasons why workers should stay home when they are sick: (1) the possibility of infecting others; (2) reduced productivity; and (3) longer recovery periods. The article notes the average adult gets two to three colds per year and each cold generally lasts a week or more.  A recent poll found 84 percent of Americans have gone to work sick and 45 percent of these adults do not warn their coworkers they are ill nor do they try to avoid physical contact with others.  According to an article on a flu outbreak can cost employers and businesses $10.4 billion in hospital bills and outpatient services. The main reasons people go to work sick include they worry about job security or they need to save their sick time so that they can care for their children when their children are sick.

Unfortunately not all workers even have the choice to take a sick day.  Many workers in low paying jobs particularly in the restaurant industry do not have any paid sick time at all.  According to an article on the Mother Jones website, 80 percent of people making less than $8.25 per hour have no sick leave and women are the most affected group in this category.  There are a few cities that require businesses to grant paid sick leave, they include San Francisco, the District of Columbia, New York City, Seattle and Portland, Oregon. Paid sick leave in San Francisco is calculated as follows: for every 30 hours worked, a worker may accrue 1 hour of sick time, equaling approximately 9 sick days per year for a full time employee.  Many major companies in the restaurant and entertainment industry, however, aggressively oppose granting lower paid workers any sick leave, even though such a benefit is very popular. In June 2013, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed into law a bill that banned local governments from requiring employers to offer paid sick leave.  The bill was supported by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Walt Disney World and Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden and Red Lobster.  Similarly, in 2011 Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed into law a preemption bill that overrode a Milwaukee ordinance that allowed for paid sick time and barred other municipalities from enacting family and medical leave rules that differ from state standards.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) if a food worker stays on the job while he or she is sick and does not wash his or her hands carefully, he or she can spread pathogens by touching food.  A recent CDC study found that sick workers were responsible for more than 50 percent of all outbreaks of food related illness caused by the Norovirus. In 2008 a Norovirus outbreak which affected more than 180 people was traced to a single worker at a Chipotle Restaurant in Ohio. Subway restaurant employees in Indiana were also cited as the source for a 2012 Norovirus outbreak affecting at least 90 people. The employees continued working even though they had symptoms of a Norovirus infection, including nausea, diarrhea and vomiting.  The State of Indiana Health Code requires that food workers diagnosed with foodborne illnesses including Salmonella, E. coli, Shigella, Hepatitis A or Norovirus infections must not go to work.

So how does one deal with people who still decide to come to work even though they are sick?  The CDC offers the following tips to keep people healthy:

  • avoid close contact with people who are sick;
  • stay home to prevent others from catching your illness;
  • cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing;
  • clean your hands either through washing with soap and water or hand sanitizer;
  • avoid contact with your eyes, nose and mouth; and
  • practice good healthy habits such as getting plenty of sleep, being physically active and eating nutritious food.