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Op-Ed: Who Has Time for the Flu? How to Fight Illness With Smart Policy

Jon Whiten | January 23, 2013

Earned days off could help contain the flu outbreak and ultimately increase employee productivity.

By this point, you’d have to pretty much be living under a rock to have not heard the news that this year’s flu season, which started early, is going to be a doozy.

Deaths are starting to be reported around the country, and there are high levels of flu activity all over the state, according to the latest update from the Department of Health.

One of the simplest and most crucial ways to prevent the spread of flu is for people with the infection to stay home so as to avoid infecting others. Sounds simple enough, but for the 1.2 million New Jersey workers without earned sick days, it’s not so simple. These hardworking folks don’t get paid if they don’t show up to work, so they are more inclined to fight through illness and slog through a workday -- particularly when the job market in New Jersey is so bleak.

Ironically, many workers in settings where flu could be most easily spread are those who routinely lack earned sick days. While 38 percent of New Jersey’s overall private sector workforce lacks access, that figure jumps to a whopping 76 percent -- more than three out of four -- in the food preparation and service industry. In other words, chances are the line cook preparing your burger, the dishwasher cleaning your silverware, and the waiter bringing your meal to the table will show up to work unless he or she is very, very ill.

That is why New Jersey needs to ensure all workers have access to earned sick days. Connecticut has passed legislation doing so, as have cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.

Earned sick days would also lower the cost of healthcare in New Jersey, since workers with chronic illnesses may avoid hospitalization by managing their health through outpatient care, and other workers will be able to take the time off they need for routine preventive care.

Guaranteed earned sick days for all would promote a healthier workforce, healthier businesses, and a healthier New Jersey. It is also the smart thing to do. A 2007 study by the Society of Human Resources Management showed that employee “presenteeism” (when employees go to work sick) costs employers $180 billion annually compared to only $118 billion a year for employee absenteeism. And the flu in particular is a big culprit, accounting for 10 percent to 12 percent of all illness-related work absences.

Businesses that provide paid sick days to workers to care for their own or a loved one’s illness benefit from increased commitment and productivity -- a win-win situation.

So how would this system work, you ask?

The earned sick-days policy we support would allow all New Jersey workers to earn sick days they can use when they or a family member are sick or need medical care -- or in the case of domestic-violence victims, to participate in criminal and civil proceedings, relocate their home, or obtain medical care. All employers in New Jersey would be required to provide these days to their employees.

Workers would earn sick days based on hours worked, guaranteeing that even those who work less than full-time can still take time off when they need to. The program would establish parameters for how quickly workers accrue time and when they could begin to use it. And businesses that already have policies that provide for the same benefits won’t have to alter their policies.

To fight the spread of flu and other illness while boosting workplace productivity and New Jersey’s economy, the Legislature should take this issue up soon. There’s no reason not to.

Jon Whiten is deputy director of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a progressive think tank focused on crucial New Jersey issues, and a spokesperson for the NJ Time to Care Coalition, which represents more than 80 organizations from around the state that support initiatives that benefit working families.

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