Survey finds strong support for paid sick leave

Jun 21, 2010 (CIDRAP News) – More than half of workers without paid sick days went to work when they had an infectious illness such as the flu, compared with 37% of those with paid leave, according to a report today from a nonprofit group that also found strong support for legislating paid sick days.

The report was commissioned by the Public Welfare Foundation, a Washington, DC–based foundation involved with worker's rights, healthcare reform, and criminal justice issues. The study was conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago this spring. Representatives from the two groups unveiled the report today during an audio briefing, and the full 44-page report is available on the Public Welfare Foundation's Web site.

Tom W. Smith, senior fellow at NORC, told reporters that the survey included a national sample of 1,461 adults and was conducted between March and May. He said the questions were designed to gauge respondents' opinions about and experiences with sick leave policies.

Fifty-five percent of respondents without paid sick leave reported going to work with a contagious illness like influenza, compared with 37% among those who had paid sick days. In addition, 16% of all respondents reported losing a job for taking time off from work while ill or to care for a sick family member.

Smith said support for paid sick leave showed some variation by political party affiliation, but showed moderate to strong support overall. He said 85% of those who strongly affiliate with the Democratic party support paid sick leave, with 64% support among those who strongly affiliate with the Republican party.

Deborah Leff, president of the Public Welfare Foundation, said lack of paid sick days affects 40 million Americans, and many more don't have sick days that can be used to care for a sick child or family member. She said survey findings suggest the gap has important public health implications, for example, restaurant workers who go to work sick and risk spreading foodborne or other illnesses.

"Let me be clear: Paid sick days affect everyone," she said.

The survey also showed that twice as many workers without paid sick days (24%) sent a sick child to school or daycare than workers with paid sick days (14%).

Leff said that the group's survey suggests that lack of paid sick days drives up the cost of healthcare. Twenty percent of those without paid sick days said they used hospital emergency departments to get medical care, because they couldn't take time off work to see their regular provider. For comparison, 10% of those who had paid leave used emergency departments for medical care.

The survey also polled respondents on their opinions about paid sick leave as it relates to smaller businesses. Seventeen percent said employers with fewer than 15 employees should be exempted from providing any sick days, 47% said smaller employers should provide "some but fewer" sick days to employees, and 33% said smaller businesses should provide the same number of sick days as larger companies.

The emergence of the pandemic H1N1 virus thrust the paid sick leave issue into the public eye, as health officials and employers worked to blunt the impact of the spread of the virus. In the first few months of the pandemic, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised employers to review their leave, pay, and benefits policies to determine if any adjustments were needed to allow infected workers to stay home while contagious.

Some public health officials and business experts said making paid sick leave a national standard is key to controlling the impact of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic and future infectious disease outbreaks. However, others cautioned that forcing businesses to provide paid sick leave hurts recession recovery and future hiring and investment.

Two bills guaranteeing paid sick leave to employees are before Congress. For example, the Healthy Families Act would allow workers at businesses with 15 or more employees to earn up to 7 paid sick days annually.

See also:

Jun 21 Public Welfare Foundation press release

Jun 21 sick leave report

Nov 17, 2009, CIDRAP News story "Sick-leave standard as anti-flu weapon stirs debate"

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