MyView: Council vote could help working families overcome block to prosperity

The flu is hitting hard and fast this year, and expert advice on how to avoid and manage it are everywhere. One consistent recommendation — a plea, really — is for sick people to stay away from others to prevent contagion. In other words, don’t go to work or school sick.

Yet, more than a quarter of a million people working in the Portland area (41 percent of all private-sector workers) don’t earn a single day of paid sick time while they work.

Nationally, eight in 10 low-wage workers — those least able to afford lost pay — lack paid sick days. This forces too many of our friends and neighbors to make an impossible choice that affects all of us: work sick and spread illness or stay home and lose income (or a job) they can’t get by without.

Thinking back to the H1N1 epidemic in 2009, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research calculated that nearly eight million Americans went to work while infected that year, spreading the virus to another seven million of their co-workers. Seven million people who couldn’t stay healthy because contagious co-workers — who should have been home — infected them.

That kind of contagion — and associated productivity losses — can be greatly reduced when people stay home from work and school, as public health officials recommend. But they often don’t because without access to paid sick days many employees fear losing pay or even their job. Lack of paid sick days is a barrier to good personal and public health, and it’s one that we can and should remove.

Two aspects of this problem are particularly important to highlight:

Food service workers are on the front lines, but most don’t earn paid sick time.

Workers without paid sick days are overwhelmingly concentrated in service-sector jobs that require a high level of interaction with the public. In fact, four out of every five food service employees in the Portland area lack paid sick time. Remember: these are the people preparing, cooking and serving our food.

Just last month, 90 people at a private event in Portland got Norovirus (a highly contagious stomach virus accompanied by intense vomiting and diarrhea), likely from a sick food service worker. Given the news about this year’s intense flu season, the lack of paid sick time is a big — but preventable — health risk for everyone.

Children suffer the consequences when parents don’t earn paid sick time.

Children notoriously get sick — and they also get better faster when their parents care for them. Sick kids are often excluded from school and child care to prevent contagion and encourage recovery — requiring a parent to miss work. But more than half of working parents lack paid sick time now, presenting a very real financial challenge for them to responsibly manage their children’s routine illnesses and recommended doctor visits.

According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, parents without paid sick days are more than twice as likely as parents with paid sick days to send a sick child to school or day care. And they are five times more likely to report taking their child or a family member to an emergency room because they were unable to take off work during normal work hours. When parents have no choice but to send a sick child to school or child care, the child’s health is put at risk — as is the health of other children, teachers and child care providers.

The result is increased contagion and higher rates of infection for all. When parents earn paid sick time at work, they can take their children to well-child visits where they receive timely immunizations that may prevent serious illnesses and certainly contributes positively to our collective health. Timely and preventive care also costs less.

We are very pleased that the Portland City Council is seriously considering a solution to this significant community health problem. After all, almost half the state’s workers without paid sick days work in the Portland area.

We urge the council to quickly ensure that all workers in Portland earn a reasonable amount of paid sick time. Put simply: the whole community benefits when we all earn paid sick days while we work.

Tia Henderson, Ph.D., is research manager for Upstream Public Health. Noelle Dobson is associate director for Oregon Public Health Institute.

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