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Big Business And Republicans Downplay Threat Of H1N1 Spreading Due To Lack Of Paid Sick Leave

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Image: Pat GarofaloYesterday, the House Education and Labor committee took a look at sick leave policies and their contribution to the spread of the H1N1 virus (swine flu). Public health experts have been voicing concerns that H1N1 is going to be transmitted by ill employees attending work, so Rep. George Miller (D-CA) has crafted a bill that would give employees five paid sick days if their employer sends them home due to H1N1.

Earlier this month, the Chamber of Commerce downplayed the extent to which lack of guaranteed paid sick leave could spread disease, saying that “the problem is not nearly as great as some people say.” And now the rest of the big business community is piling on:

Testifying on behalf of the National Association of Manufacturers Tuesday, A. Bruce Clarke, who runs his own 1,000-member business lobby in North Carolina, told Miller’s committee that most businesses already have comparable or more generous paid leave programs, so why bother? “While some employers may not have taken specific action in response to the H1N1 outbreak, these employers are clearly the exception to the widespread practices taking place today,” Clarke said in his prepared testimony.

And its not only business downplaying the extent of the problem. Rep. John Kline (R-MN), the ranking member on the Ed. and Labor committee, also tried to claim that the “vast majority” of workers have paid sick leave:

“With so many workers already having access to a variety of sick leave options, we need to look very carefully at proposals to add a new layer of federal leave mandates,” the 2nd District Republican said in a prepared statement during a House Education and Labor Committee hearing…According to Kline, the vast majority of workers in the United States already have access to paid sick leave.

Actually, nearly half of private sector workers have no paid sick leave. This includes 78 percent of hotel workers and 85 percent of food service workers, even though they are among the most likely to come in contact with other individuals. 68 percent of workers not eligible for paid sick days say that they have gone to work with a contagious illness.

*This post originally appeared in The Wonk Room on November 18, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

**For more information on H1N1 and swine flu visit this Workplace Fairness resource page.

About the Author: Pat Garofalo is the Economics Researcher/Blogger for WonkRoom.org at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. His writing has also appeared in The Nation, The Guardian, the Washington Examiner, and at New Deal 2.0.

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House Democrats Introduce H1N1 Economic Vaccine

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Image: Brett BrownellDuring this year’s flu season, concerns about getting sick and missing work will be compounded. Not only will we have to take precautions against the common flu, but now we’ll have to add H1N1 to our list of concerns as well. Thankfully, vaccines are now available for both types of flu. However, many Americans will still be stricken with a contagious illness that will force them to miss work this flu season. Therefore, House Democrats have introduced a sort of economic vaccine which will guarantee up to five paid sick days to a worker sent home or directed to stay home by their employer because of a contagious illness.

The legislation, called the Emergency Influenza Containment Act was introduced by Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, and Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), chair of the Workforce Protections Subcommittee.

Rep. George Miller
Rep. Lynn Woolsey

Rep. Woolsey said, “This bill will ensure that workers who are directed to stay home by their employers can do so without paying a financial penalty.”

The Emergency Influenza Containment Act would take effect 15 days after being signed into law, sunset after two years, and cover full-time and part-time workers in businesses with 15 or more workers.

This should be a relief to the 72% of part-time workers, 37% of non-union workers, 18% of union workers who receive zero paid sick leave.

An employer can end the sick leave if they believe the employee is well enough to return to work and the employer informs the employee of the decision. Meanwhile, the bill would allow employees to continue on unpaid leave under the Family Medical Leave Act or other existing sick leave policies.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that a sick worker will infect one in ten co-workers. As a result, the CDC and other public health officials have advised employers to be flexible when dealing with sick employees and to develop leave policies that will not punish workers for being ill. Plus, according to the EICA, employees who follow their employer’s direction to stay home because of contagious illness cannot be fired, disciplined or made subject to retaliation for following directions.

H1N1 is still thriving in this tough economic climate. But for the rest of us, an economic vaccine may be on the way.

The House Education and Labor Committee will hold a hearing on the legislation the week of November 16.

About the Author: Brett Brownell is a new media fellow at the New Organizing Institute where he manages the Today’s Workplace blog and new media for Workplace Fairness. Brett served as deputy director of new media & videographer for the Obama campaign in Pennsylvania. He is also the founder of Worldwide Moment (an international photography project for peace) and the son of a 40-year veteran of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants union.

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