With many experts predicting swine flu could infect 63 percent of the U.S. population by mid-December, unions, family advocates and health professionals are pressing Congress to pass emergency paid sick days legislation so workers can stay home if they get sick.
"Congress should waste no time in passing paid sick days legislation so that working people can earn paid time off and help prevent the spread of illness without jeopardizing their economic security," Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, told lawmakers yesterday.
"Sick workers are not productive ones and by spreading disease in the workplace risk the overall productivity of the business," said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. "By providing paid sick leave for sick workers, worker safety and business productivity can both be enhanced - a win-win for employers."
They and others told the House Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that, along with vaccinations and good hygiene practices like hand-washing, the best way to protect workers and slow the spread of the H1N1 swine flu virus is through guaranteed paid sick leave.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one worker sick with the H1N1 virus will infect one in 10 co-workers if he or she goes to work while infected with the virus.
The CDC's guidelines to employers and workers say individuals who suspect they have the swine flu or another influenza-like illness should stay home. A CDC advisory says "employers should allow workers to stay home without fear of reprisals or losing their jobs."
But the AFL-CIO says half of all private sector workers and 76 percent of low-income workers have no paid sick leave. "That leaves sick workers the choice of staying home and losing several days of pay or likely spreading the disease to fellow workers and the public," the labor federation says.
Many low wage workers, the AFL-CIO notes, have jobs that involve direct contact with the public, such as the food service and hospitality industry, schools and health care.
HELP Committee chairman George Miller, D-Calif., said his committee has been pushing for universal paid leave policies for workers of all income levels.
Earlier this year, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., introduced the Healthy Families Act, which would require businesses with more than 15 employees to provide workers with up to seven paid sick days a year to care for themselves or a sick child or spouse.
Speaking in support of the legislation, Miller said, "When you're struggling to make ends meet, you're going to do everything possible to not miss a day's pay. The lack of paid sick leave encourages workers who may have H1N1 to hide their symptoms and come to work sick - spreading infection to co-workers, customers and the public. This isn't good for our nation's public health or business."
The Obama administration announced, through testimony by Deputy Secretary of Labor Seth Harris at a Senate hearing earlier this month, that it supports passage of the Healthy Families Act.