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Sick Days


Head pounding. Stomach queasy. Fever. Shivers. Sneezing. Coughing. Sore throat.

I am no doctor, but if you have any or all of these symptoms you are probably sick (or a serial hypochondriac).

You look over at the alarm clock. Time to get up and go to work.

Ben Bycel

What do you do? You are just too sick to work. Hardly a difficult decision if you are one of the lucky employees whose employers provide paid sick days. But it’s not an easy decision if you are one of the more than 40 million U.S. workers — mostly low-wage earners — who don’t have paid sick days as an option. You have a family to feed, rent due; car payments and other necessary expenses are piled up in the yet unopened envelopes on the kitchen table.

Neither the federal nor state government requires sick leave for employees. (See below for a hopeful change.) The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 provides all employees with 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to care for a new child or a seriously ill family member.

When you are sick, do you go to work to earn the day’s pay at the risk of infecting your coworkers, or do you stay home until you’re better? Maybe you are in the food industry (manufacturing or restaurants) where it is estimated that almost 79 percent of workers do not receive paid sick days. Whether you dish up Whopper Burgers or gluten-free, vegetarian, sugarless dishes, you could infect customers, too.

If you’re a grocery worker, you may sneeze, even if into your sleeve, in front of customers at the checkout stand. What if you work in a doctor’s or dentist’s office, and you have no sick days? Vulnerable patients could catch what you have and become even sicker.

Moreover, if you are one of the millions of parents who have no sick days for yourself or your family, you may send your child to school ill because you cannot afford to stay home.

The arguments for not going to work when sick, regardless of the financial cost to you and your family, seem imperative. You are a health hazard because you can infect coworkers, customers, and delivery and other service people. You may cause others to get sick and stay home, which causes your employer to lose income.

All of these arguments are easy to make for those whose economic security is unthreatened by losing a few days work. But what do you do when missing work means jeopardizing your financial life?

This is a true ethical dilemma because there are no right or wrong answers and there are no laws to obey or disobey.

It seems clear, however, that it would be in the best interest of our economy that government (even a limited government) pass laws that allow for paid sick leave. The California Legislature, after years of not acting, is currently working to pass the Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Families Act of 2014.

The purpose of this bill is to provide relief for almost six million California workers (about 40 percent of the state’s workforce) who are not currently provided paid sick days. If this bill passes, employers would be required to provide sick days for an employee who works 30 or more days a calendar year.

As with all incipient laws, however, the details and definitions in this act are still being debated, and there are those who believe mandating paid sick days would be a heavy burden on small business.

So where would you come down on this ethical dilemma? Go to work sick and earn a day’s wage, or stay home and avoid getting other people sick?

I’m not sure what I would do.

Benjamin Bycel is an attorney and writer. He was the founding executive director of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission and of the newly reconstituted Connecticut Ethics office. He serves as an expert witness in cases dealing with political and legal ethics. If you have an ethics question, send it to streetethics@independent.com.

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