Why Don’t U.S. Employers Give Sick Leave?

Many Americans have no paid sick days, or face pushback for using them

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The recent coronavirus epidemic has spotlighted a glaring problem in the U.S.: a lack of paid sick leave.

There is currently no federal mandate for employers to give Americans paid sick leave. Instead, there is the Family Medical Leave Act, which gives unpaid leave for up to 12 weeks. To qualify, employees have to meet certain requirements, such as working at a job for at least a year, and have a doctor sign off that they need leave. But since almost half of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, many people can’t afford to take unpaid time off.

Twelve states currently require employers to give paid sick leave. (My state is one of them, but I’ve personally received pushback when I tried to use my sick days.) And most jobs only guarantee a limited number of sick days, nowhere near the 14 required for a quarantine.

Instead, our culture promotes “presenteeism,” forcing people to work through their illness. A play on “absenteeism,” presenteeism is when people come in to work sick and push through it. One study found that 90% of Americans go to work when they’re sick.

But coming in to work is actually worse for productivity, since sick people don’t get much accomplished, and people in the workplace can get sick. This is especially troubling in industries like food service and healthcare, where many people can be exposed to a sick employee.

Our culture promotes “presenteeism,” forcing people to work through their illness.

Some employers also require a doctor’s note for a single day of leave. This is irritating; we know that if we have a fever and we’ve been up all night coughing, we’re not going to get much done at work.

A doctor will not be able to do much to help a bad cold, so this wastes both healthcare staff and the employee’s time. The added cost of the doctor’s visit also makes people more likely to just come in to work sick.

In contrast, giving employees a few days of sick leave, and trusting them to use them when they’re sick, actually improves productivity. Letting people rest and return to work when they are well helps the entire company.

The U.S. Surgeon General recently tweeted in support of paid sick leave:

One argument against sick leave is that people will abuse it, and it will cost businesses money. But studies have found that many employers have little to no cost increases after giving paid sick days.

In light of the pandemic, employers must re-evaluate their policies. To not offer any sick leave in this day and age is simply irresponsible — and can have long-lasting repercussions.

Article writer, aspiring YA novelist & health scientist.

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