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Dickensian sick leave abets the swine flu

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Oct. 5, 2009 at 7:47 pm with 1 Comment »
October 5, 2009 5:51 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Guess what happens when a global flu pandemic meets sick leave rules straight out of the world of Charles Dickens?

Workers get sick. More workers get sick. Customers get sick. Bosses who thought they were making money by forcing sick employees to work wind up losing money instead.

The Emerald Queen’s policy presents the problem at its starkest. According to the people who work there, the Puyallup tribal casino’s busiest days – Fridays, weekends and holidays – are must-work days for scheduled employees.
Call in sick once, you’re suspended without pay for a day. Call in sick twice, you’re suspended for three days. Three times, you lose five days; four times, you lose your job.

Hello, Mr. Scrooge.

Do the casino’s weekend gamblers know they are rubbing shoulders with workers who aren’t allowed to stay home if they get the flu? Emerald Queen managers are reportedly rethinking the policy, which can only hurt their business in the long run.

Unfortunately, the casino is only a minuscule part of the problem. Nearly half the country’s work force, including hundreds of thousands of Washington workers, have no paid sick leave. They may or may not lose their jobs if they stay home with the flu, but they do lose precious income.

For the most part, these are the working poor – people who can’t afford to lose a day’s pay. Many of them are food service employees who really shouldn’t be serving meals when they’re shedding viruses like a dog shakes off water.

Here’s the Centers for Disease Control’s advice on dealing with the swine flu: Stay home for at least 24 hours after the fever stops. Because the fever generally runs its course in two to four days, expect to stay home for three to five days.

The idea isn’t just to provide flu victims with bed rest and a faster recovery. Forcing contagious employees to come to work exposes other employees – and ultimately customers – to the virus. We aren’t talking skin infections or food poisoning here: The swine flu is pandemic precisely because it spreads like wildfire among human beings.

Draconian sick leave rules leave workers with a cruel choice: Lose pay – maybe even your job – or become a Typhoid Mary of swine flu. Not a wise policy in the face of a virus as sociable as H1N1.

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