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Working While Sick is Common

Since we’re between flu seasons, concerns about encountering ill colleagues in the workplace have abated for now. But there’s reason to be concerned, even without an epidemic in the headlines: A large percentage of American workers apparently go to work while sick, including more than half of those without paid sick leave, according to a new survey for the Public Welfare Foundation. The survey also shows that workers without paid sick leave are more likely to use hospital emergency rooms — one of the least efficient and most expensive forms — for primary care.

More than one-third (37%) of workers eligible for sick leave said they had gone to work while sick with a contagious illness, while more than half of those who are not eligible for sick leave — 55% — said they go to work while sick. Nearly a quarter (24%) of those without sick leave say they send their sick children to day care or school. And about two in 10 (18 to 20%) of workers without sick leave took
themselves or family members to hospital emergency rooms for
non-emergencies.These numbers are about double what workers with paid sick leave report.

Depending on how it’s structured, the availability of sick leave may not keep people away from work, apparently. While more than six 10 (64%) are eligible for paid sick leave, less than half (47%) of workers took advantage. In many cases, paid sick leave is combined with vacation and family leave into a single pool called Paid Time Off (PTO). More than half (58%) of those with PTO get just 10 days or less of paid leave for all of these purposes. If they get sick after using up their PTO, they cannot get paid if they stay home while sick.

For researchers in government or larger industrial labs, sick leave usually comes as part of the compensation package. (In academia, leave is often handled less formally, but it’s usually available.) The report cites the 2009 National Compensation Survey compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which shows that nearly nine in 10 (88%) of government workers get sick leave, as well as eight in 10 staff (81%) of companies with 500 or more employees. As companies get smaller, the percentage of workers with paid sick leave drops; about four in 10 (42%) of workers at companies with 15 or fewer employees get paid sick leave.

Part-time and lower-paid workers, the new new survey says, are less likely to be eligible for sick leave than full-time and better-paid employees. Only about a quarter (24%) of part-time workers get sick leave, compared to nearly three-quarters (73%) of full time workers. And only three in 10 of those making less than $20,000 a year get sick leave, compared to eight in 10 workers making $80,000 a year or more.

Survey data were collected by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, via 1,461 telephone interviews.