INDIANAPOLIS  — It’s inevitable. 

Flu season comes around, and so do the standard recommendations: Wash your hands, and stay home if you develop symptoms. This year, health officials are doubling down on this advice as coronavirus cases emerge in the United States, including here in Indiana.

That advice is much easier to follow if you have paid sick days. The United States is an outlier when it comes to paid leave. Nationally, policymakers have set no baseline standards for what employers should offer. And while some employers recognize that it is not to their benefit for sick employees to come to work for a variety of reasons – including that they are less productive and could infect fellow employees and clients – far too many still do not. According to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data (2019), about one in four workers nationally, and as many as one in three workers in Indiana, do not earn paid sick days.

Digging deeper, the statistics on who does and does not earn paid sick days becomes even more problematic. Fewer than half of workers in the lowest wage quartile – often, the people who care for children and the elderly, prepare food, or handle transactions at a cash register – lack the ability to earn paid sick days.

When workers lack paid sick days, they are far more likely to go to work sick. In one Center for Disease Control study, nearly 60% of workers who prepare food reported going to work sick. Parents with sick kids and no paid sick leave are much more likely to send those kids to school when they are contagious, or to take them to emergency rooms rather than doctors’ offices for treatment. They do so for good reason; beyond an inability to pay the bills without a paycheck, nearly one in four workers without paid sick days have reported either losing a job or being threatened with job loss as a result of needing time off.

Fortunately, some states and localities are stepping up to the plate. Currently, 33  jurisdictions – including 11 states – require employers to allow workers to accrue paid sick leave. Often, these laws require a minimum of one hour paid sick leave per 30 hours worked, although variations exist. The only law Indiana has passed concerning paid sick days is preemption, barring localities from requiring employers to provide this vital workplace and public health benefit.
In my first session at the legislature, a lawmaker asked me why an employer should pay people for the time when they are not at work. There are a number of good reasons to provide paid leave. Vacations make workers more productive and more committed to their jobs. Paid maternity and paternity leave increase morale, satisfaction, and retention. Staying home when sick can reduce infection and the risk of workplace injuries. The list goes on and on.
Now we can add “reducing the impact of a global pandemic” to the list. 

Erin Macey, PhD, is a senior policy analyst for the Indiana Institute for Working Families and the Indiana Community Action Association.