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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Compensating Sick Workers at Home with H1N1 Flu

While the United States has established a national protocol to meet the medical challenges H1N1 flu pandemic, there remains a void on how to pay workers who are ill and have been encouraged by the government to stay home.  The litigious workers' compensation adversarial system may provide benefits ultimately for those who can demonstrate that their illness "arose out of and occurred in the course of the employment," after months, if not years, of delay. 

Some states have temporary disability programs, fraught with bureaucratic delay and red tape, while the issues of denial in the workers' compensation claims become identified. If held to be compensable, reimbursement is then sought by the temperate disability plan, public or private, 

The issues of a lack of an efficient wage replacement system for those workers affected by the H1N1 flu will be addressed by Congress shortly. The chorus of advocacy is increasing as this debate advances. The following is a recent post from the occupational-environmental mailing list setting forth a pretty persuading argument to establish a plan to pay sick workers with H1N1 flu.

Sick At Work

When the first cases of the H1N1 virus (swine flu) were confirmed in America back in April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised that sick individuals stay home from work or school. "Influenza is thought to spread mainly person-to-person through coughing or sneezing of infected people," the CDC said."If you get sick, CDC recommends that you stay home from work or school and limit contact with others to keep from infecting them." However, for many Americans, staying home from work due to illness -- or to care for a sick child -- is an impossibility because of a lack of job-protected paid sick days. In response to the threat posed by H1N1, Rep. George Miller (D-CA) has proposed legislation that would "guarantee five paid sick days to employees at businesses with 15 or more workers who are directed to stay home by management." However, Miller's plan sunsets in two years and gives employers, not employees, the right to decide when leave is taken. Plus, under Miller's plan, employees cannot use leave time to care for a sick child. The Healthy Families Act (HFA), which is also before Congress, would guarantee seven paid sick days per year to all workers at firms with 15 or more employees. "Paid sick days has always been a good, common sense idea, but, in light of the recent H1N1 epidemic, it has also become a necessary one," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), an HFA sponsor. "Right when more and more workers are feeling economically vulnerable and afraid to even miss one workday, we face an extraordinarily serious health risk that spreads much more quickly if the sick do not stay at home." Last week, the Obama administration officially agreed, and endorsed the HFA.

The U.S. is currently the only developed nation that does not require some paid sick leave for workers. Nearly 40 percent of private sector workers have no paid sick leave, including 78 percent of hotel workers and 85 percent of food service workers. A survey last year by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found that "68 percent of those not eligible for paid sick days said they had gone to work with a contagious illness like the flu." As CAP Senior Fellow Ann O'Leary and Karen Kornbluh, U.S. Representative to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, pointed out in The Shriver Report: A Women's Nation Changes Everything, "too often, most low- and many moderate-wage workers cannot access even the minimum benefits provided to more highly paid workers." And this is true of paid sick leave, as 88 percent of workers in the top 10 percent of wage earners have it, compared to just 22 percent of workers in the bottom 10. "Hopefully, employers are doing the right thing and not disciplining workers who are out sick as a result of the flu," wrote Center for American Progress Senior Economist Heather Boushey. "But there's no penalty for employers who choose not to pay workers in this situation, or who refuse workers any time off at all."

Big business organizations have panned the notion of required sick leave, with the Chamber of Commerce saying that "
the problem is not nearly as great as some people say," and the National Association of Manufacturers warning that the HFA "would impose an inflexible government mandate on employers, making it more difficult for manufacturers to preserve and create jobs." However, lost productivity due to sick workers attending work and infecting others costs the U.S. economy $180 billion annually. For employers, the cost averages $255 per employee per year and "exceeds the cost of absenteeismand medical and disability benefits." The National Partnership for Women and Families actually found that "while a paid sick days policy would impose modest costs, the estimated business savings total $11.69 per week per worker from lower turnover, improved productivity and reduced spread of illness." The Center for Economic and Policy Research has also concluded that "there is no significant relationship between national unemployment rates and legally-mandated access to paid sick days." "When businesses take care of their workers, they are better able to retain them, and when workers have the security of paid time off, their commitment, productivity and morale increases, and employers reap the benefits of lower turnover and training costs," said National Partnership President Debra Ness.

Two major cities -- San Francisco and Washington, D.C. -- have implemented mandatory paid sick leave policies, while a third -- Milwaukee -- has passed the requirement, only to see it tied up in court. In addition, 15 states have proposed mandatory sick leave laws. 
"We are all being advised by our doctors to stay home if we're sick, but that is a cruel piece of advice if you don't have paid sick time," Maine Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell said. New York City is also looking at mandatory leave, which Mayor Michael Bloomberg has expressed support for, at least for the city's large employers. New York's proposed requirement would also allow workers to stay home in the event their child's school was closed for public health reasons. "Many working parents suffered this past spring because their children's schools were closed even though their children were not sick," said Donna Dolan, chairwoman of the New York State Paid Family Leave Coalition.

To read more about flu and workers' compensation click here.