One key way to curb coronavirus spread in US: more paid sick leave


As the coronavirus makes its way across America, imagine you are a waitress with no paid sick leave and children at home. Rather than falling ill from a case of COVID-19, your biggest worry is losing pay, or possibly your job. So, if you don't feel well, you still go to work.

Experts say that personal dilemma is also a public dilemma, because it drastically increases the risk of spreading the virus in the community.

One actual example of the dilemma: Euqueva Varner, 33, a security guard in Detroit, told CBS News that she felt under the weather on Monday, but she still showed up for work because she doesn't get paid sick time. "I had the chills, and my body was cold but I was hot. I had a headache, and I wasn't my normal self," she told the news outlet.

Varner is not alone in not having paid sick time. Nearly one-third of American workers don't have paid sick leave, including 69% of part-time employees, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only seven states require employers to provide paid sick leave.

Paid sick leave

What's the solution?

As nations struggle to stem the spread of the new coronavirus, employees may need to be given paid time off from work to either self-quarantine or to recover from the illness, said LeaAnne DeRigne, an associate professor in the School of Social Work at Florida Atlantic University.

On Tuesday, the New York Times went even further: "Congress can help by mandating that workers receive paid time off if they fall ill, or if they need to care for an ailing family member. Such a policy is necessary both to impede the spread of the virus and its economic harm," the editorial said.

"Most developed nations require employers to provide some form of paid sick leave, and the United States should do so, too. Some states already mandate sick leave, and a recent study found that the adoption of such laws reduced cases of influenza by 11% in their first year," the editorial noted.

Congress could mandate sick leave specifically for this coronavirus, which would produce a huge effect, the editorial added. A 2013 study of Pennsylvania workers estimated that allowing them to take up to two paid "flu days" would have reduced workplace transmission of the flu by roughly 39%.

Aside from helping stem the spread of coronavirus, if a coronavirus vaccine becomes available, workers would be more likely to get it if they have paid time off from work, DeRigne said.

Research shows a link between paid sick leave and workers getting vaccinations, according to DeRigne and Patricia Stoddard-Dare, a professor at the School of Social Work at Cleveland State University. The two have conducted numerous studies on the lack of paid sick leave in the United States.

No choice but to go to work

They said that during the 2009 H1NI outbreak, sick workers who didn't stay home exposed an additional 7 million people to the virus. It's estimated that lack of paid sick leave resulted in an additional 1 500 deaths during the outbreak.

"Now is the time to consider the importance of having access to guaranteed paid sick days in public health epidemics," DeRigne said in a Florida Atlantic University news release.

"Those who lack paid sick leave are highly represented among food service workers, day care workers, and home health aides who work in positions that can greatly influence the health of others, especially the elderly, vulnerably ill and children," she explained.

"It is dangerous when any employees are sick with highly contagious viruses but have no other choice but to report to work or else lose wages. Paid sick leave also allows working parents the opportunity to care for their sick children rather than sending them to school when they show signs of contagious illness," DeRigne said.

"People use paid sick leave days to care for themselves or their family members who have acute health problems and to get adequate rest to avert escalation of the condition," Stoddard-Dare said in the release. "In order to comply with public health recommendations, Americans need access to guaranteed sick leave."

Image credit: iStock

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