H1N1 scare exposes our sick-leave dilemma

Although it’s probably still too early to tell what the real toll of the new influenza virus sweeping New Hampshire, the nation and the world will be, it’s certainly gotten us all thinking about how viral illness spreads. One Petri dish of human contagion is the workplace.

Everyone from physicians to politicians has been encouraging us to wash our hands and, most importantly, to stay home from work and keep our kids home if we or our children have flu-like symptoms. Although I’m quite sure no one would argue that this is good advice, I’m equally sure that staying home with the flu comes at great cost and sacrifice to a significant number of American and New Hampshire workers.

This month, UNH’s Carsey Institute released an issue brief that should give us all a bit of a jolt when thinking about who actually can afford to stay home and protect us from the latest flu virus.

According to Dr. Kristin Smith’s timely report, “Paid Sick Time Helps Workers Balance Work and Family Time,” one-third of American workers and at least 25 percent of New Hampshire’s workers aren’t paid for their sick time.

Let’s think about this for a minute. Over the past months, leading up to the outbreak of H1N1 influenza, U.S. workers (as well, of course, as those in Mexico, where the virus probably originated) have been increasingly strapped financially as a direct result of the tumbling economy. Now, add to that distress the fact that we are asking many folks to stay home with even the slightest flu-like symptoms in their family. It’s probably not happening.

Ethically unpalatable

According to Dr. Smith’s report, the group hardest hit by this are low-income and part-time wage earners. Say, for example, the folks working at restaurants, cleaning services, child-care centers and other low-wage jobs that are crucial to our health and well-being. Many of the people who are vital to helping us cope with a flu outbreak may not be able to afford to stay at home or to keep their children home to prevent the spread of the virus.

This ethically unpalatable situation also constitutes a public-health threat. Many workers report that taking unpaid sick time can put their job in jeopardy. The recent economic downturn has caused many more employers to forgo offering their employees any compensation for sick leave. Even though anyone can get sick, a significant portion of our workforce must weigh paying their bills against being prudent where everyone’s health is concerned.

Legislation could address this dilemma. At least 13 states are considering some form of mandatory sick-leave legislation, and the Obama administration has indicated that it may support federal legislation on the issue.

Here in New Hampshire, the recently introduced House Bill 662 would require companies with 10 or more workers to provide sick leave for both full- and part-time workers.

Health experts warn that H1N1 may go on vacation in the Northern Hemisphere over the summer months, but that we could see a resurgence during the fall and winter flu season. To me, this seems like a real good time to think about how we can help ourselves by helping take the pressure off those of us unlucky enough to get the flu and need to stay home.

I urge you to read the Carsey Institute briefing. It is available online at www.carseyinstitute.unh.edu.

Dr. Malcolm Smith is family life and family policy specialist with UNH Cooperative Extension and teaches in the University of New Hampshire Family Studies Program. He can be reached at 603-862-7008, or malcolm.smith@unh.edu.