By now, we have all heard about or been affected by the influenza outbreak that is sweeping the country and taking a staggering toll. At least 44 states have been hit, thousands of hospitalizations and dozens of deaths have been reported so far, and some are already comparing this year's outbreak to the H1N1 pandemic of 2009.
Story after story carries the common-sense recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that people who are feeling sick should stay home. The CDC includes this as a foremost component of flu treatment and prevention.
But what many don't realize is that staying home when you're sick is a privilege in this country — one that more than 40 percent of the private sector workforce does not have because no matter how long they hold their jobs or how hard they work, they can't earn a single paid sick day. Millions more can't earn any paid sick days to use to care for a sick child or family member.
As a result, workers are forced to forego the medical treatment and recovery time they need. Instead, because they have to pay the rent and put food on the table, they go to work sick and send ill children to school or daycare.
It is during public health crises like these that we are reminded of the grave consequences of our country's failure to let workers earn paid sick days.
Take, for example, the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. (Despite the many comparisons being made to H1N1 already, this outbreak is currently not at the same magnitude.) During that outbreak, an estimated 7 million people in the United States caught the flu from their co-workers. And according to the American Journal of Public Health, people without paid sick days were at greater risk of being exposed to the virus.
Part of what makes the lack of paid sick days such a public health issue is that it is the very workers who have the most frequent contact with the public — such as those working in food service, child care and personal care — who are the least likely to be able to earn paid sick time. The result is a recipe for increased contagion in our workplaces, communities and across the nation.
The good news is that this problem is solvable, as some lawmakers and voters in one state and a handful of cities across the country have demonstrated. They have listened to the people in their localities and followed the advice of public health organizations by establishing common sense paid sick days standards — with great success.
But a health crisis such as this one makes painfully clear that it is time for a federal standard. And lawmakers and employers are simply not doing all they can and should to prevent the spread of illness.
There is a bill, the Healthy Families Act, which has been introduced in the last several Congresses. It has been the subject of in-depth hearings, and it would put the nation on track to implement a national paid sick days standard similar to the ones working well in places that have put such standards in place. Its passage should be a high priority.
A national paid sick days standard would not stop the flu, but it would mean that more workers and their families could stay home to recover when they get it. That would slow the spread of contagion and prevent low-income families from facing impossible choices when the flu or other illnesses strike.
So, as we continue to see, hear and experience the effects of this epidemic, let's remember that there is a simple, yet critical, step we haven't taken. And let's do something about it.
Debra L. Ness is the president of the National Partnership for Women & Families.