Sick-Leave Racial Disparities: A Flu Endemic’s Best Friend

By Guest Columnist Sep 08, 2009

by Marty Martinez, policy director of the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network. As a fundamental part of their response to the H1N1 epidemic, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) instructs people who get sick to “stay home from work or school” to keep from infecting others. But for the nearly six million Californians who work for employers that don’t provide paid sick days, this is easier said than done. In the face of a flu epidemic, these workers are asked to make an incredibly difficult choice – between following medical advice or losing pay, between keeping a job or not infecting others. With more than one-third of flu cases transmitted in schools and workplaces, effective strategies to help workers stay home when infected could save a significant number of lives and avoid unnecessary heath care costs. Right now, however, workplace disparities make us all vulnerable to endemic disease.   The United States remains alone among developed and prosperous Western nations in not guaranteeing this basic right for its workers. But the right to paid sick days is more than an employment benefit; it is, fundamentally, a strategy to protect the health of everyone. Local health departments in California reported almost 900 disease outbreaks involving food between 2003 and 2007 involving about 16,000 cases of illness.  The vast majority of these outbreaks occurred in institutional and workplace settings such as restaurants, schools, and day care settings. Almost 2000 of these cases were connected to food-handling by an infected person. Yet in California, 70% of workers in our restaurants and food establishments do not have paid sick days, creating a barrier to diagnosis and treatment and a disincentive to taking time off work.  In addition, paid sick leave is often denied to those who need it most. Almost 50% of working mothers report the need to miss work to care for a sick child and almost half of these mothers have no sick days to use to care for a sick family member. And disparities in paid sick leave contribute to racial and ethnic health inequities. The majority of California’s Latino workers (56%) do not have paid sick days, compared to 38% of White workers. In California, the Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Families Act (AB 1000) was introduced this year by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma. This bill is a commonsense public health prevention strategy that would guarantee all California workers the right to earn and use paid sick days for personal illness, to care for a sick family member, or to recover from domestic violence or sexual assault, without fear of losing their jobs. You can find a sample support letter for the bill here. Let’s prevent the spread of disease, and enable workers to take care of themselves and their families before it’s too late.