Worker advocates across the country have long-pressured employers as well as local and state governments to guarantee paid sick leave to employees, pointing out that those without it will often jeopardize the health and safety of colleagues and customers by coming to work sick.
But workers who acquire the right to take paid time off to recover from an illness are often hesitant to exercise that right, studies show.
A recent poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.C. Chan School of Public Health shows that a majority of working adults say they go to work when they have a cold or the flu.
Among those who work in the service sector, and present particularly great risks to the public, roughly half say they go to work with either of those conditions. The problem is often referred to as “presenteeism.”
The greatest concern to health experts is norovirus, which is transmitted through either feces or vomit. It spreads quickly and easily from hands that aren’t adequately washed to kitchen surfaces and, of course, food.
"And so it just takes microcontamination of your hands, if you don't do a perfect job washing, to be able to contaminate food with enough of the virus to infect lots and lots of people," Kirk Smith, who is responsible for foodborne illnesses for the Minnesota Department of Public Health, told NPR.
It seems to make sense why workers in the service sector, most of whom don’t have comprehensive benefits, would show up to work sick. Many don’t have sick leave and they generally don’t have the savings necessary to afford to skip a day’s worth of wages.
But the researchers found that whether an employee had paid sick leave was not a reliable predictor of whether he or she would go to work sick. That’s because even those who do have such benefits still worry about unofficial retaliation for the work they’re missing when they’re sick.
A strong level of economic security increases the chance that an employee will call in sick, but not dramatically so. While 65 percent of low-wage workers say they work sick, so do 55 percent of average-wage workers and 48 percent of high-wage workers say the same.