Gambling on Luck-Based Benefits

Joe Robinson is author of "Work to Live."

Even if you can’t make it to the local craps tables or you’ve spent your budget for Lotto tickets this week, chances are you’re still doing your part for the new Roulette Economy, thanks to an in-cubicle gaming program sweeping the American workplace.

It’s called the paid time-off bank, or PTO, and it’s symptomatic of a workplace — not to mention society — that increasingly resembles a casino.

Paid time-off banks combine sick leave and vacation days, creating what at first looks like a jackpot — extra vacation days and more flexibility. But the winnings are subject to the vagaries of chance — your health — and corporate sleight of hand. Once your sick days are used up, further absences not covered by short-term disability come out of your holiday hide.

After her company switched to a paid time-off bank, Sherri Landrum, a medical assistant in Denver, discovered the exciting world of luck-based benefits. Last January, the single mother of nine had to have emergency foot surgery. The procedure and prolonged recovery quickly burned through her sick days, wiped out her vacation time and finally hammered her pocketbook. “Half the time I was off, I didn’t get paid for,” she said. “I couldn’t pay my bills, and I’m still not caught up a year later.”

Like Landrum, more and more American workers who have used up their puny sick-day allotment will have to decide whether to stumble to work sick or stay home and burn up vacation days. Or worry that if they roll the dice and take time off, it could jeopardize a paycheck if a health emergency hits. It adds another layer of guilt to gobs already there in taking a vacation, making it seem selfish to squander days that might be needed if you or a family member get sick.

All-in-one-leave banks have stormed through offices like rhinoviruses. The number of companies offering them swelled from 20% in 2000 to 67% today, according to CCH Inc., a human resources firm in Chicago. The epidemic comes as the number of sick-leave days continues to decline or vanish. Just three years ago, the average sick leave provided by companies with sick-leave policies for employees was 9.3 days. Now it’s 6.9 days, plunging to 5 for most paid time-off sick-leave plans.

Those statistics are a shrinking fig leaf on a thornier issue: Nearly half of U.S. workers don’t get any paid sick leave — for low-wage earners, it’s 75%. Unlike 139 other nations, the U.S. doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave. Let the pneumonias and hernias fall where they may.

Slashed sick leave is part of a broad assault on labor — roundly ignored in the last election — across a downsized workplace as the burden of risk shifts from employers to employees, who, if anyone’s listening out there, are livid about it, whether Republican or Democrat or independent. Companies are cutting or eliminating vacation leave (nearly a third of American women don’t get any; a quarter of men), pensions, health insurance and ergonomics rules. Meanwhile, the Economist reports that corporate profits in the U.S. are higher than they’ve been in 75 years as benefits — including sick leave — shrink.

Only one segment of wage earners has not had benefits slashed. “Professionals, managers and CEOs have great benefits,” said Robert Drago, a Penn State economist and work-life expert. “For some reason, they no longer believe they have to treat employees on the front lines with dignity and benefits.”

Employers say that merging sick- and vacation-leave policies increases attendance and efficiency. “It certainly reduces unplanned absenteeism,” said Rich Chaifetz, chief executive of human resource firm ComPsych. “Sick days are typically unplanned, which results in significant burdens to corporations when individuals don’t show up for work unexpectedly.”

“We have found a positive impact on last-minute absenteeism,” said Anne Ballentine, a vice president at Covenant Healthcare System in Milwaukee, a company that’s had a paid time-off program for five years. “If you know you can use that day as a vacation day another time, you’re less apt to do that.”

But at a time when almost 40% of Americans are already in deep zombie mode, working more than 50 hours a week, PTO programs don’t seem to be doing what their champions believe. Unscheduled absences not only haven’t fallen, they rose to a five-year high in 2004, according to CCH Inc. That could be because the odds are long on the basic premise of the system: that you can plan absences and book viruses, car accidents and sick kids on the calendar months in advance with your boss.

PTO advocates are fond of saying that it doesn’t matter what we call the time off anymore — sick, vacation, personal time — it’s all the same. The blurring helps obscure the nature of a policy that holds very different leave purposes hostage to one another.

All-in-one time-off banks stack the deck toward younger, healthier and single employees. Those who stay healthy can, in theory, take vacations, and employees with health problems — or children or parents with health problems — often end up with scraps.

Like any good wager, paid-time-off banks dangle a few prospects for coming out ahead. They offer, for instance, a measure of flexibility to parents, many of whom can currently be fired for staying home with a sick child. Under these plans, they don’t have to give a reason for an absence — so long as they schedule a child’s bout with measles well in advance. Meanwhile, as the time bank gets drained, the incentive is for anyone not confined to a full body cast to hobble into the office.

In this Vicks VapoRub derby, it can’t be surprising that 40% of companies are reporting a growing problem with “presenteeism” — employees who show up sick but are too ill to get anything done. A Cornell University study found that the cost of presenteeism is higher than the combined total of the cost of absenteeism and medical and disability benefits, as people spread bugs around and make themselves sicker.

It makes zero sense for businesses to keep the wounded on the front lines. It’s even more myopic for our elected officials — who have primo benefit security — to ignore the toll on families of our Cro-Magnon policies and pretend tens of millions of caregivers haven’t entered the workforce over the last 30 years.

“The overall health and well-being of families is affected, and there are costs to the public health system when you think about sending kids to school sick,” said Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, an advocate for women and healthcare in the workplace. As if that’s not sickening enough, Ness notes that a large number of child care and food service workers don’t have any sick leave, placing our kids and salads in the hands of contagion.

Not having any leave, of course, is even worse than the paid-time pool. “I can’t afford to miss a single day,” said Ramona Puentes, a Milwaukee laborer who is the sole provider for five children and lives paycheck to paycheck. She says that the lack of paid leave has cost her two jobs, once when she had to take care of her dying mother.

“It’s a huge cost to the public when someone who doesn’t have paid sick days loses a job and has to go on public assistance,” said Linda Meric, director of 9 to 5, National Assn. of Working Women. “People are being forced to choose between being good employees and good family members. That’s not a choice anyone should have to make.”

A small first step toward curing the disease that’s undercutting families and spreading bugs and medical bills in the workplace would come with passage of the Healthy Families Act, scheduled to be introduced in Congress this year by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.). It would guarantee employees seven paid sick-leave days a year to take care of themselves or a family member.

In the meantime, American workers have to hone their gambling instincts in the Roulette Economy, which requires a knack for betting the house, car, liver and spleen to get what the citizens of 96 other countries get by law — the chance to indulge the fruits of your labor on guaranteed vacations, not dependent on a roll of the medical dice.

Get our weekly Opinion newsletter