Political Post: Paid Sick Leave

All of the official government recommendations regarding how to prepare for a potential pandemic is hysterical to me. It is hysterical because, as many of you know, I have a day job. And part of my day job involves safety training and risk management. I just ran a safety training last month on biological hazards. I’m fairly well-versed on the topic.

With all the talk about the coronavirus, now is the time to remind people that the most effective thing the United States can do to contain the spread of not only the coronavirus, but pretty much any contagious disease, is institute paid sick leave. Period. Full stop. One sick fast food worker or one sick cashier can potentially infect hundreds of people during the workday. One sick hotel worker or flight attendant can infect thousands.

Now the knee-jerk reaction is that this will cost jobs and/or increase costs. Let’s look at this argument. Employers aren’t going to eat those costs, so they are going to pass them on to customers. Estimates on what the actual cost would be to provide paid sick leave range from increases of anywhere from 5% to 20% the cost of products or services. Let’s split the difference and assume paid sick leave would add 10% to the cost of, say, a typical fast food meal. So if your standard fast food meal costs $7.00, then once paid sick leave went into effect, the cost would jump to $7.70. Which means your fast food meal is going to cost an extra 70 cents.

The average out-of-pocket cost for a person with insurance, if you need to be hospitalized, is around $1,000.

You would need to consume 1,428 fast food meals to have paid the same amount as a hospital stay.

If you eat fast food once a week, it would take you 27 years’ worth of meals to equal the cost of one hospital stay.

Keep in mind, that is just your out-of-pocket cost for a short hospital stay. That number doesn’t include YOUR lost wages from being out of work. It doesn’t include lost productivity. It doesn’t include any money spent on OTCs or after-hospital care.

Now, of course, someone will say that it isn’t just one fast food meal we are talking about. EVERYTHING WILL GO UP! How are we going to pay for this? And I get it. Adding 10% to my grocery bill would cost me (does the math) about $1000 a year. Oh, look, that’s the same amount as a hospital stay would cost me out of pocket! And without the added penalty of potential DEATH!

Congress is currently arguing about how many BILLIONS in tax dollars we are going to spend to combat a potential coronavirus pandemic. You should be having a heart attack right now trying to figure out where we are gonna find a few BILLION dollars lying around.

And the reality is, the actual “cost” of paid sick leave doesn’t consider all the ways companies are already losing money from having sick workers in the workplace.

  • Healthy employees are more productive. You get more work done in the workday when you aren’t being dragged down by illness. Nobody is an effective employee when they are hacking up a lung.
  • Healthy employees are more attentive to customers. And being attentive to customers makes for happy customers, who spend more money. No customer wants to be sneezed and coughed on while getting their food delivered to the table.
  • Healthy employees reduce overall health care costs. If you do offer insurance, having sick employees stay home prevents other employees from getting sick, thus reducing your company’s insurance costs to provide care. You can pay for one employee to stay home sick, or you can pay the medical premiums for a dozen employees over a series of weeks who keep getting each other sick because they are all coming to work sick.
  • Healthy employees are more attentive, and thus less likely to suffer workplace injuries. People who work while sick are more likely to suffer a recordable injury due to slow reaction times, inattentiveness, and tiredness. They are also more likely to be involved in motor vehicle accidents. (FUN FACT! Did you know that, if you are aware that a sick employee is debilitated from illness and you don’t take action and there is an accident, you can be cited under the General Duty Clause for creating an unsafe work environment?)

If we are having an honest discussion about the overall, long-term impact on business, paid sick leave would be either cost-neutral or end up saving a company money. And from a wider, national view, paid sick leave would spread the financial risk associated with contagious diseases around so that the cost per person becomes nominal.

A person who has paid sick leave will stay home at the early signs of an illness, preventing it from spreading to others and, quite often, preventing their own illness from escalating to something life-threatening (which is obviously more expensive to treat.) Any short-term inconvenience (finding someone to cover a shift) is negated by the long-term benefit (people not getting hospitalized or dying from complications).

Paid sick leave also provides job security. For many people, missing a few days of work due to illness doesn’t just mean they won’t get paid. It also means they could be fired. Because while FMLA covers workers who are hospitalized, it doesn’t provide protection from workers who stay home two days with the flu. Workers with job security are more likely to engage in consumer activities like home buying, car buying, and other activities that boost the economy.

The reality is that we are going to end up “paying” one way or the other. We can pay up-front at a discount rate now with paid sick leave. Or we can pay later at premium rates when a pandemic breaks out across the country. For too long, corporations have terrified us into thinking anything that is good for workers is somehow bad for consumers because it will drive up cost. But it should be apparent we’re going to pay the cost one way or the other. We should pick the option that will do the most proactive good.