The High Cost of Working Sick

Photo illustration of the high cost of being sick

It was big news recently when Hillary Clinton tried to go to work sick with pneumonia and was forced to leave a 9/11 memorial event. It became even bigger news when every woman in America pointed out she always “works sick” because there's always something or someone who needs you.

Heck, I remember that time when I had a brutal flu and was bedridden, but had to haul myself up and go pick up my 6-year-old at her tennis lesson. I had to stop the car twice on the way over and three times on the way back to vomit. Good times.

But I digress. Let's talk about the “going to work sick” part of this story — and not just for women, for everyone. Especially in this day and age, when so many of us are part-timers, or contractors, or self-employed. In the new “gig economy” we recently explored on this page, there is often little or no paid sick time. It is estimated there are 41 million working people without paid sick days.

This means one of two things: Americans who take unpaid sick time lose money or they go to work sick. Which is worse?

The State of Sick Leave

Currently, there is no federal law governing paid sick time for workers. It is handled state by state (Connecticut, California, Massachusetts, Oregon and Washington, D.C., have implemented earned sick time laws), and even municipality by municipality (New York City and Pittsburgh, for example).

The federal Healthy Families Act would allow workers to earn up to seven paid sick days a year to recover from short-term illness, care for a sick family member, attend medical appointments, or seek assistance for a domestic violence, stalking, or sexual assault issue. It has been introduced annually in Congress since 2013, and dies in committee each year.

In September 2015, President Obama signed an Executive Order requiring federal contractors to allow their employees to earn up to 56 hours — or seven days — of paid sick time per year. That's as far as a national effort has gotten.

But according to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), research supports paid sick leave over unpaid. Here's more:

  • It's a public health issue: In one survey, 55 percent of workers not eligible for paid sick time reported going to work with a contagious illness, compared to 37 percent of those with sick time. In the restaurant industry, nearly 90 percent or workers surveyed went to work while sick, including more than half who did so “always” or “frequently,” including while experiencing vomiting or diarrhea. You want fries with that?
  • It's a healthier public issue: According to the DOL, “A study of workers with and without paid sick time found that the percentage of workers who underwent mammography, Pap test, and endoscopy screenings at recommended intervals was significantly higher among workers with access to paid sick time.” And more of them saw a doctor or clinician regularly than those without sick time.
  • It's a business health issue: Paid sick time improves worker morale and productivity, attracts good employees, and reduces costly turnover (a business typically spends one-fifth of a worker's salary to replace that worker).

Your Job or Your Health

Back in the good old days when I worked for a company in an office setting, we had a shared-desk system. That meant that day shift workers typically shared their desk (phone, computer, keyboard, drawers, etc.) with a night-shift person. A common scenario was that one shift worker would come to work healthy, and the other shift person would come to work sick as a dog, and then the healthy person would also get sick.

I kept a value-pack size box of bleach wipes, a vat of hand sanitizer, and a can of spray disinfectant in my “safe” drawer. Every morning when I would start my shift, I would have a 5-minute ritual of disinfecting EVERYTHING (because it's not just the hands, folks. It's the particulates.) There were a few folks in the office who were infamous for coming to work sick — honking and snorting and blowing their germs all over the rest of us and into the air vents.

(An aside – the first thing you should do on an airplane is shut off the air nozzle over your head, and if you can get away with it, all the nozzles in your seat group. Because that thing is a highway of germs. That guy coughing in row 39? His germs are shooting at warp speed into your face in row 7 through that air nozzle.)

Going to work sick has become so commonplace that it has a name — “presenteeism”! The opposite of “absenteeism”! Just like there is always that guy in the office who uses every last second of sick time (“because it's mine”) so there is the guy who comes in every day, no matter if he has the flu or a heart attack. The rate of presenteeism goes up when the economy goes south, which means during the Great Recession and in the days since it ended, we are all dragging ourselves in looking and feeling like hell.

We asked the question on the Get Rich Slowly Facebook community, and the majority of folks said they either don't get paid sick time or, if they do, the last thing they use it for is when they are actually sick. They use it for when their kids are sick, their spouse is sick, they have an emergency of some sort that needs to be taken care of. Most sick time is accrued based on number of hours or days worked, which means a new employee gets little or none. Nearly all are “use it or lose it” and offer no remuneration for unused time (some cash for being healthy would be nice, wouldn't it?)

When You are The Boss

As a self-employed person, I don't really get sick time. Back in the spring, I had a bout of something that required antibiotics — and I felt really lousy, so I gave myself permission to take two days off and lie on the couch and watch Law & Order and eat popsicles. On the third day, I was back at it. A hit in the wallet, yes, but pretty quick recovery.

The Husband, on the other hand, also had a bout of something that required antibiotics and, instead of giving himself sick time (one of his two jobs has sick time and the other doesn't), he soldiered through. And then got sicker. And then a little sicker. And then had to take time off from both for longer than if he had been smart at the start.

And no, I didn't say I told you so. Out loud anyway.

More about...Health & Fitness, Insurance

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4 years ago

Years ago I had a job at a big box store.It didn’t pay much but my income was essential to support my family. I came down with bronchitis and my doctor told me to stay home for a week. When I reported this to my supervisor he told me if I took that much time off I’d get fired. So I kept going to work. And in the 20 years since then, every time I get a cold I cough for weeks. I’m my own boss now so I can take sick days when I need to, but I do… Read more »

4 years ago
Reply to  infmom

Well, at least you probably won’t make somebody else sick. I hate it when colleagues come to the office, coughing and sneezing and spreading germs. Instead of them going to the doctor and taking a week off (it’s paid, after all), they easily infect three or five others who then in turn are away for a couple of days. ARGH!

Papa Foxtrot
Papa Foxtrot
1 year ago

I come from a family that believes in hard work. However, my work suffers severely when I work sick. Part of my job requires me to work with substances that degrade if you breathe on it so I must be the dumbest person to try to pull this off.