Do U.S. Employers have an Ethical Obligation to Give their Employees Paid Sick Days?

It was a Friday, just the third day back from an extended two-week holiday vacation when my throat started getting scratchy.

By the next morning, I was running a fever. Much of the next two days, I didn’t leave the couch. Tired, achy, stuffy nose, soar throat, fever, and in a daze.

The thought of going in to work the next day? Awful! Unthinkable!

Most of us are faced with a dilemma at this point.

  1. Do we tough it out and go in to work?
  2. Do we stay home and spare ourselves the agony (and our co-workers, clients, or customers future agony)?

If we have the option of taking a paid sick day, most of us do it. Yeah, we might feel a little guilty, stressed about falling behind, but I’m willing to bet that there’s still a large majority out there who would opt to stay home, even it today’s hyper-competitive, stressful work climate. I’d even argue that there is a moral obligation to do so, so you don’t infect others.

My employer does offer paid sick days, so I took the next work day (three actually) to recover. I’m sure my co-workers appreciated it.

But what if you don’t have paid sick days as an option? What if you’re in debt? You need to pay your family’s rent? Put food on the table? What are you going to do?

The moral argument goes out the window at that point. Why should you, as a hard working employee, put your financial situation at risk to spare others from getting sick when your employer doesn’t have the decency to offer its employees a paid sick day?

Many Americans Don’t Have the Option of Taking a Paid Sick Day

paid sick dayUnfortunately, that’s the scenario that about one-third, or 41.7 million Americans face when becoming ill.

Yes, the U.S. is the most overworked nation. Its citizens also have the least parental leave (actually, the only with no paid leave), and now we have the dubious distinction of being the only developed country without a law guaranteeing employees the right to paid sick days.

  • Should the government make it a law that employee’s should be guaranteed paid sick leave?
  • Do employers have an ethical (if not legal) obligation to offer their employees paid sick days?

Before you answer those questions, consider that:

  • 79% of food system workers don’t get any paid sick days. With that metric, you’re almost guaranteed to come in contact with some unwholesome bacteria… on the very food you put in your mouth.
  • 23% of workers in the healthcare and social assistance sector don’t get paid sick days.
  • most retail and grocery workers (touching and bagging your stuff) don’t get paid sick days.
  • millions of children are sent to school each year because their parents can’t take days off to stay home with them.
  • millions of days of productivity are lost each year when those who are sick come to work and infect others – the overall economic impact of the flu in the U.S. is $87.1 billion each year.
  • more than 200,000 people are hospitalized for flu-related complications each year.
  • over a period of 30 years, between 1976 and 2006, estimates of flu-associated deaths in the United States range from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000 people.

Now… go ahead, and debate away.

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