It’s flu season again, and while health care providers resume the annual drumbeat about flu shots, this year we’re asking Massachusetts voters to take another step to prevent the flu: vote yes on Question 4. (And after you vote, wash your hands.)
If passed, Question 4 would mandate paid sick leave (40 hours per year for full-time employees) for every employee of a company with more than 11 people. On top of the benefits this would provide workers, estimates are that we could see a 15 percent to 34 percent reduction in flu cases in a pandemic year if infected workers were to stay home and recover. Now, lack of paid sick time often makes this impossible. About 1.4 million workers in Massachusetts have no paid sick time, and many face retribution if they take an unpaid day off. When we do not give workers the opportunity to take care of themselves during illness, our state’s public health is at risk.
Our lack of paid sick time also impacts kids. If parents can’t take time off to care for their sick children, they are faced with prolonged and miserable recoveries in the classroom. And as long as our schools are full of kids putting their hands in their mouths, everyone goes home with the flu. Schools are among the biggest sites for the spread of the flu, and parents often feel that they have no option but to send their children to school sick. Some workers report that they are not dismissed from work until they receive a call from the school asking them to come take their child home. Unfortunately, by the time such a call has been placed, a sick child has been dragged out of bed, delaying his or her recovery, and other students have been placed at higher risk.
Mandatory sick leave in the food service industry would also prevent outbreaks of foodborne illness. The leading such illness is norovirus, which accounts for about half of all foodborne illness outbreaks. Norovirus is transmitted when a person who is ill prepares food, and even with the best of precautions, it spreads like wildfire. People get sick, they throw up, they try to wash their hands thoroughly, but before you know it, your food is contaminated, and you and your entire dorm have uncontrollable diarrhea and vomiting for 48 hours.
Ideally, no one preparing your food has norovirus. In fact, food service workers are required by law to wait 72 hours before reporting back to work. Yet 85 percent of food service workers in the United States don’t have a single earned sick day. In essence, we require something that most of the 284,570 food service workers in Massachusetts cannot afford, and many come to work at their employer’s urging. How many meals have you eaten out this week? How many people’s hands touched your food? Are you hungry yet?
Studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate, not surprisingly, that at restaurants with a paid sick leave policy, fewer food service workers reported coming to work sick in the past year. It stands to reason, then, that with mandatory paid sick time for all workers, the spread of disease would be significantly reduced and everyone would be better protected. Opponents of Question 4 argue that mandating paid sick leave will have a damaging economic impact by forcing employers to pay absent employees. Yet they are not taking into account that increasing paid sick leave decreases sickness overall: the more sick workers are able to stay home and recover, the fewer sick workers we will have. Allowing workers to take time to attend to medical needs early prevents longer, more costly recoveries associated with untreated illnesses. Furthermore, studies show that in cities with paid sick leave policies, such as San Francisco, sick days are only taken out of necessity, and 25 percent of workers will not use a single sick day in a given year.
Preventing the spread of illnesses like the flu or norovirus is just one example of the ways that passing Question 4 would have a positive impact on public health. Please join Boston Medical Center and countless other Massachusetts hospitals in supporting paid sick leave on Election Day.
Melissa Pritchard (MED’17), a second year School of Medicine student, can be reached at email@example.com.
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