Swine Flu Outbreak Highlights Sick-Leave Legislation

October 26, 2009
by Joanne Silberner
National Public Radio

Efforts to legislate mandatory sick leave have been pushed aside by the health care overhaul debate at the same time swine flu experts are urging people who are sick to stay home.

On Capitol Hill, legislation was introduced earlier this year that would require businesses with more than 15 employees to provide them with seven days of sick leave per year.

About 75 percent of member businesses do offer some sort of sick leave, says Susan Eckerly, senior vice president of public policy at the National Federation of Independent Business.

"If they don't offer paid sick leave it's probably because they can't afford it," she says. "Paying wages is sometimes all an employer can do."

While the NFIB membership is sensitive to swine flu, it doesn't want a sweeping law, she says. "You don't solve a short-term problem by imposing a long-term mandate at a time we're just seeing our way out of an economic recovery," she says.

But Jeff Levi, head of the public health advocacy group Trust for America's Health, says a long-term mandate is needed, especially in the era of swine flu.

"Unfortunately not all businesses make the right decisions," he says. "This is a case where we need a standardized approach, we need to make the workplace safe, make sure we're protected from the spread of infectious diseases."

Indeed, plenty of people do go to work when they're sick because they can't afford not to, Levi says. And various estimates put the number of American workers without paid sick leave at just under 60 million.

Although the health care overhaul bill is likely to be a large piece of legislation with many pieces tacked on, spokesmen for two of the main backers of the bills, Rep. Rosa De Lauro (D-CT) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), say that's not likely to happen with this bill. It could be December or beyond before legislation about paid sick leave comes into play again. Where swine flu will be at that point no one knows.

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