Lack of paid sick days fueling record flu epidemic

CHICAGO – Hospital emergency rooms are filling up here and across the nation as millions come down with the flu in what has now been declared to be the worst such epidemic in ten years.

Workers in almost every industry are reporting that people all around them are sick. As the government and doctors plead with people to stay home to avoid infecting others, however, millions have to choose between going to work sick and not being able to pay rent and utilities or feed their children. Almost 40 percent of the private-sector workforce, according to the AFL-CIO, are without as much as a single paid sick day.

And, according to restaurant workers here and around the country, most restaurant employees having no paid sick days means that people suffering from the flu are cooking and preparing the food we eat when we go out for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

“Over 90 percent of the people who work in restaurants have no sick days,” said Saru Jayaraman, founder of Restaurant Opportunities Center United, which is one of many new organizations advocating for non-union workers in the nation’s low-paid service industries.

“Since the minimum wage for tipped workers at restaurants has been frozen at $2.13 an hour since 1991, many of our cooks and servers and bussers can’t afford to stay home when they’re sick, said Jayaraman. “So they come to work with a runny nose or the flu or worse.”

Jayaraman said that, in 2009, he knew a bartender with swine flu who worked in that condition for several days at a major Washington D.C. “hot spot” because he could not afford to not go to work.

He said that the Federal Healthy Families Act, which will be re-introduced this year, would require all businesses with 15 or more employees to provide up to seven days of paid sick leave each year.

A number of cities, including San Francisco, Seattle, Washington DC., and the state of Connecticut have already approved such legislation on the local level.

The flu epidemic now raging across the nation has already been called the worst in as much as 10 years. “We are in for what looks like it’s going to be one of the worst flu seasons in nine or 10 years,” director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci has announced.

In Washington, Chicago and Boston there are reports that people are actually being turned away from hospital emergency rooms.

Most of the reported flu cases so far show people suffering from the H3N2 strain of the virus, which has worse symptoms and lasts longer than most of the other flu strains in recent years.

The only “silver lining” is that, for those who have not yet gotten sick, the flu vaccine available widely this year, including at most pharmacies, is well-matched to this strain of flu.

The Massachusetts AFL-CIO is using the state of emergency declared around the flu epidemic in Boston to remind lawmakers that in that state alone, more than one million do not have paid sick leave. They urge people click here.

Photo: AP/ Richard Drew


John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik started as labor editor of the People's World in May, 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There he served as a shop steward, as a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee, and as an activist in the union's campaign to win public support for Wal-Mart workers. In the 1970s and '80s he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York. Along with being labor editor, Wojcik is a co-editor of