In the entire rest of the developed world, forcing sick employees to choose between nursing themselves back to health and earning money to support their families would be viewed as both cruel and a little insane. Literally every other affluent country has some form of mandated paid sick leave.

But not in the U.S. Here it's perfectly legal for employers to tell employees, 'if you don't come to work, even if you broke your leg or your kid is in the hospital, you don't get paid.'

At least it is unless you're a federal contractor.

Under new rules just introduced by the Obama administration, companies contracting with the federal government are now obliged to allow both full and part-time workers to accrue paid leave which they can use for anything from preventative doctor's visits, to staying in bed and sipping chicken soup, to caring for an ill family member.

Setting an example

The rule change affects around 600,000 employees directly, granting them paid leave when before they had none, but as President Obama explained in an email interview with Slate, the aims of the new rule are broader -- the administration is hoping to set an example and convince employers more generally that paid time off isn't just humane, but also good business.

First, the president observes that working while sick isn't just a bummer for the unwell employee. "Coming to work sick is bad for employees, co-workers, and customers alike. No one wants a colleague coming in and getting you sick. No one wants to be served by a waiter who's under the weather," he argues.

But that's not the main reason President Obama thinks business owners should get behind paid sick leave. He also makes a dollars and cents case for the policy. Pointing to a mandatory paid sick leave rule that passed several years back in Connecticut, the President notes:

Many businesses initially opposed the first state paid sick days law in Connecticut, yet within a few years a survey showed... that an overwhelming majority of businesses reported only small or no effects on their bottom line, and three-quarters now report being supportive of the new policy.

But even more importantly, the question we should be asking is: What is the cost of not providing paid sick leave? We lose incredible talent in our workforce every year as millions of Americans are faced with the absurd choice of going to work sick or staying home and losing their pay, or perhaps even their jobs. How much more effective will businesses be when their sick employees stay at home to recover instead of getting their co-workers sick, too? During the 2009 H1N1 outbreak, one report estimated that 8 million Americans showed up to work and spread the illness to another 7 million coworkers. This "presenteeism" and its reductions in productivity due to the spread of illness in the workplace may cost American businesses an estimated $160 billion each year. Is offering paid sick leave really too high a price to pay?

Do you think it makes business sense to offer paid sick leave? And do you think the government should require businesses to pay employees who are absent due to illness?

Published on: Sep 30, 2016
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