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Would You Like a Side of Swine Flu with Your Order?

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In President Obama’s “first 100 days” news conference, he gave good, common-sense advice:

– “Stay home from work if you’re sick; and keep your children home from school if they’re sick.”

But this advice is about as helpful as being told to eat an apple a day to keep the doctor away when nearly 50 percent of private-sector workers have no paid sick days. This statistic jumps to four out of every five low-income worker going without paid sick days. Overall, 57 million private-sector workers in this country have no paid sick days, and 94 million cannot use their paid sick days to care for a sick child [Source: Public Welfare Foundation]. There is a bad joke somewhere in there about the 48 million Americans going without health insurance not needing the sick days to go to the doctor, but the punch line is tragically unfunny.

The survey, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago, found that when workers took time off for illness or to care for a sick family member, one in six say they were fired, disciplined or threatened by their employer. Another study done by Harvard and McGill University researchers finds the United States ranks at the bottom of 21 high-income nations in providing paid parental leave for workers.

In fact, 145 countries guarantee paid sick days; the United States, the wealthiest nation in the world with the most productive workers, is not one of them. We can do better.

Bottom line – employment law and policy have consequences far beyond the relationship of employees and their employers. If we want our co-workers to take time off to recover from illness and not jeopardize exposure to colleagues, if we want the ability to strategically close a few schools when flu cases are identified and keep children at home, then we need a policy to support it or else being told to ‘stay home from work’ becomes meaningless.

Preparing for pandemic illness requires stocking up on vaccines, improving access to health care and tracking cases, as well as giving people the ability to take sick days. The Healthy Families Act is a federal bill that will let workers accrue up to seven paid sick days a year that they could use to recover from illness or care for a sick family member.

Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, Corporate America considers the right to seven paid sick days a year as “paid vacation.” These are some of the same folks that are ‘championing’ workers’ rights’ to a management ordered secret ballot election for union representation. In case I’m being too subtle – workers’ advocates are championing the Employee Free Choice Act so that employees may collectively bargain for benefits such as paid sick days. Corporate America is threatened by a more unionized work force because it jeopardizes unchecked greed; and is fighting the legislation making it easier to form unions under the guise of protecting workers’ rights just as they are lobbying against the Healthy Families Act. This is a side point to the one I’m making about sick days, but I think worthy of consideration.

Paid sick days are a basic workplace standard. Or, more accurately, should be a basic workplace standard. And to make the point personal, do you want your restaurant food handler working on the day he has the flu? How about your child’s daycare worker?

It’s time to pass the Healthy Families Act. You can get involved with a number of groups. I recommend the National Partnership for Women & Families as well as the Everyone Gets Sick online rally.

Eileen Toback is a political strategist and labor relations expert. To read more of Eileen’s commentary on labor issues check out unionmaiden.wordpress.com. If you have a question for Eileen, contact her via [email protected]


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