Poor and Hispanic Workers Are Least Likely to Have Sick Days

And most of the people who prepare your food don't get paid time off when they get sick, either.
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New York City last week mandated that companies with five or more employees offer at least five paid sick days to their workers, becoming one of only a handful of cities to establish paid sick leave.

Meanwhile, 10 states have passed laws prohibiting local governments from establishing sick-leave laws.

A new analysis from the Institute for Women's Policy Research, a nonprofit that advocates for pro-family policies, found that in 2012 it was primarily poor, Hispanic workers who were most likely to go without paid sick days. Overall, the organization found that 39 percent of private-sector workers over the age of 18 must choose between getting paid or staying home when they fall ill.

Access to sick days by population group, 2012. (IWPR)

And it was mostly the lowest-earning workers who were affected:

IWPR

Even worse, 76 percent of food service workers, they found, currently aren't offered paid sick days. 

Access to paid sick days by occupation, based on an Institute for Women’s Policy Research analysis of the 2012 National Health Interview Survey. (IWPR)

Most health departments recommend that sick workers don't handle food, but a CDC survey of 491 restaurant workers in 2011 found that a fifth had worked while sick with vomiting or diarrhea. 

Small-business advocacy groups are staunchly opposed to sick-day legislation, arguing it would cause a drop-off in hiring. But other research reports show that after California's leave law was established, most employers saw either no effect or a positive impact. And after a San Francisco municipal sick-leave law was enacted, workers took fewer days than they were eligible for.

In a past life, I covered small business, and while it's true that some entrepreneurs are mostly concerned about their bottom lines, others are genuinely short-staffed. Plus, some business owners say that because turnover in retail tends to be high, they don't trust their employees not to play hooky:

"When you're hiring part-time retail individuals, it's hard to cultivate a culture where they're really loyal," Karen Davis-Farage, president of a go-kart racing business in Jersey City, New Jersey, told the Wall Street Journal. "If someone says they're sick, are they really sick? Hopefully you get the right behavior."

But at least some studies show that "presenteeism"—workers showing up for work even if they're sick—costs companies more than absenteeism does because foggy-headed, sneezing, retching workers aren't as productive and infect those around them.

And there's evidence that workers such as line cooks have spread norovirus to customers by coming to work sick. Davis-Farage may have trouble trusting her go-kart operators not to take a "mental health day," but that's probably preferable to what happens when you combine a highly contagious stomach illness with tiny, fast-moving cars.

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Olga Khazan is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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