Presenteeism: On the job while sick. Think of it as the opposite of absenteeism. It’s a hot topic right now; the best way to contain the spread of the flu is to keep sick people out of circulation. They should be in a warm bed with a bowl of hot soup on the bedside table and a stack of DVDs ready when some entertainment is needed.
They should not be at work.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that 39 percent of people employed in private industry do not have paid sick leave as a benefit.
And 81 percent of service workers earning $10.50 or less have no paid sick leave. These are the people behind the cash register, serving you food in a restaurant, cleaning offices and hotel rooms and handing you your ticket when you go out to see a movie.
The people with the most contact with the public have the least ability to take a few days off to stay home with the flu. And right about now the small business owner who might be reading this is muttering that she can’t afford to pay people who aren’t working.
Let’s take a look at that and a few other accepted truths about paid sick days. The information comes from studies conducted by the Centers for Disease Control, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Women’s Institute of Policy Research study of San Francisco’s paid sick leave ordinance.
Myth: Paid sick days are too expensive for small service businesses to provide.
Reality: It’s affordable and it decreases turnover.
Before San Francisco enacted its ordinance in 2007, the restaurants and mom-and-pop businesses fought hard to prevent it. They predicted the cost of paid sick days would put them out of business. In 2011 a detailed study was done and employers are happy their fears were not realized. There was no discernible increase in payroll costs.
Presenteeism, people showing up at work while sick, was way down. Employers saw that it was better for an employee to call in sick, take care of their illness and not contaminate the other staff. The number of employees struggling to work while sick was drastically reduced. The H1N1 virus in 2009 demonstrated the value of keeping sick employees out of the workplace.
Turnover decreased because employees didn’t need to change jobs to get paid sick leave. The city ordinance requiring paid sick leave leveled the field for all employers, and good employees stayed in place longer.
And best of all, according to the Centers for Disease Control, workers with paid sick leave are 28 percent less likely to suffer work-related injuries. People in construction, restaurants or hospitals who do physically demanding jobs are more likely to injure themselves (or someone else) if they are working while sick, weak and fatigued.
Desk workers may not injure themselves, but their productivity and work quality will suffer if they are working while sick.
Myth: Employees will take advantage of paid time off and abuse the benefit.
Reality: The San Francisco ordinance makes six to nine paid sick days available each year. In the four years that have been studied since the ordinance went into effect only half of the covered employees used any sick days. Those who used sick days used less than the number available to them; they want to keep sick days banked.
There will always be some employees ready and willing to abuse any situation. But most employees — and especially employees with small children — value the opportunity to take care of their health without cutting into an already small paycheck.
Myth: Food service workers don’t work when they are sick.
Reality: The most disturbing thing I read as I did the research for this column was a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control along with researchers from Duke University. The study is titled “Factors Associated with Food Workers Working while Experiencing Vomiting or Diarrhea.”
The researchers surveyed 486 restaurant workers and 12 percent admitted they had worked two or more shifts serving food while experiencing vomiting or diarrhea.
If the hostess in your favorite restaurant greeted you and asked if you would like to be served by Adam who is feeling fine and healthy or Steve who is working while suffering from vomiting or diarrhea, what would you say? That puts it all in perspective, doesn’t it?
Paying a dollar more for a meal to ensure it isn’t prepared or served by a sick employee looks like a pretty good deal to me.
Virginia Detweiler provides human resource services and management training in southeastern Washington. Questions can be submitted to her email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information that would identify the sender will be removed. She can also be reached at 509-529-1910.