For many ill with the flu, staying home is no option : Workers without paid sick leave are often penalized for absences.
Glynndana Shevlin awoke Oct. 30 with a runny nose and scratchy throat, worried she might have the flu. But the full-time food and beverage concierge at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim has no paid sick days, and if her absences stack up, she faces discipline.
So like many others in the service industry, Shevlin, 49, weighed her options and reported to work sick.
“I thought I could make it,” said Shevlin, who has worked at the hotel for 21 years.
Four hours into her shift -- and after several trips to the bathroom to retch -- Shevlin asked to leave early. She lost wages and was docked disciplinary points.
“I felt like I was being punished for doing the right thing,” she said.
Though President Obama has declared H1N1 flu a national emergency and federal health and labor officials have urged sick workers to stay home, for many that’s not an option. A third of the nation’s workers don’t have paid sick days -- about 51 million people, according to U.S. Department of Labor estimates last spring. That percentage rises to about 40% in California, according to a study last year.
Congress plans to consider legislation next week that would guarantee workers paid sick time. For now, some feel torn between public health and protecting their jobs. Nationwide, 84% of workers said they felt pressured to come to work sick because of the recession, according to a September poll by Vancouver-based Angus Reid Strategies. The poll also showed that 69% of workers had not been offered vaccines or other precautions from employers.
“We’re all scrambling now, we’re really fighting. When you’re desperate to make ends meet and pay your rent, you’re going to do whatever you need to do,” said Stephanie Barnett, 31, of Los Angeles, a struggling actor working part time for catering companies. “You live on Benadryl, Nyquil, Dayquil, whatever it is. You don’t breathe on the food, you keep your Handi Wipes with you. You’re exhausted, but if you can make it through the end of the day, you’re all right.”
Jeffrey Gunzenhauser, medical director for Los Angeles County’s Department of Public Health, said that though the agency does not track how many people with H1N1 are going to work sick, it is likely a problem.
“With the tight economy, individuals feel more pressure to come to work sick, so they’re balancing that against the need to stay home and get well,” Gunzenhauser said.
Nathan Rice, 31, a server in Los Angeles, said he has seen those pressures firsthand.
“I’ve known people who were sick as a dog and come into work anyway and loaded up on Theraflu and energy drinks, and that’s how they got through their shift,” he said, adding he knows that employers, particularly those at smaller businesses, may not be in a financial position to offer sick days.
One in six workers say they or a family member have been fired, suspended, punished or threatened for staying home sick or caring for a sick relative, according to a survey last year by the Washington, D.C.-based Public Welfare Foundation. Many large employers, such as Disney and Wal-Mart, dock workers disciplinary points for staying home even when they are ill.
Disney spokeswoman Suzi Brown said the company provides many employees with up to seven paid sick days a year, which they can bank. Brown said that under the disciplinary point system, a worker would have to be absent three times in a month before facing discipline. In the case of Shevlin, the hotel worker who left sick, Brown said that Shevlin’s union, Unite Here Local 11, cut off sick pay for about 2,000 other workers earlier this year because of a contract dispute. A spokesman said the union was forced to eliminate the benefit because Disney refused to cover rising healthcare costs.
There is no state or federal requirement for businesses to provide paid sick leave. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) is pushing legislation that would require businesses with 15 or more employees to offer paid sick leave to full- and part-time workers: seven paid days off a year, or an hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked. Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) has proposed legislation that would provide up to five paid sick days for workers with H1N1 flu and other contagious diseases.
“We are seeing more and more stories of workers who are infected with the virus but can’t afford to stay home because they don’t have paid sick leave,” Miller said. “This puts both their co-workers and their customers at risk -- and could cost their employers money in lost productivity.”
Miller cited an estimate, based on a 2004 study at Emory University, that the economy loses $180 billion in productivity a year when sick employees show up to work.
Some employers say paid sick leave saves them money in the long run.
“If they’re sick and they’re getting other employees sick, that’s just going to impact our employees more,” said April Boduc, a spokeswoman for San Diego-based Sempra Energy, which gives employees 10 paid sick days a year and allows them to bank unused days and donate vacation days to sick co-workers.
Abi Chilton, owner of Alligator Pear Inc., a Canoga Park catering company, said she recently had to encourage sick chefs and servers among her pool of 50 to 75 workers to stay home.
“Our work is very physically draining, so to be sick and do what we do is very, very tough,” Chilton said.
But she said it was a “tough call” whether paid sick leave would work for her business, which is largely seasonal and part time.
Those who do have paid sick leave say they feel fortunate. When Rebecca Bernal, 27, was diagnosed with H1N1 flu Oct. 6, she said she was encouraged to stay home. Bernal, the field representative for state Sen. Curren Price (D-Inglewood), did not return to work until Oct. 15.
“I know a lot of other people who got sick and keep saying, ‘I hope it’s not H1N1 because I can’t miss work,’ ” Bernal said. “It’s hard. If you’re doing what your doctor tells you, you’re out for a whole week.”