It feels like a soap opera – As The World Turns. That marauder of unintended consequences again raises the ugly head of disaster. Employers across this nation, seeking balanced employee benefits, have created an environment that can lead to more devastating pandemic diseases. We are talking about the employee benefit of paid sick leave.
Understanding Paid Sick Leave:
I worked for a large corporation for thirty years. Over that time we watched our employee benefits change with mergers and new management understandings of employee behavior. Back in the my day, our employer granted one sick day per month, and allowed an accumulation of 90 total days available for a disastrous illness. They later added a feature of allowing 92 sick days, then the last two would be converted to one vacation day. This was designed as an incentive for employees to not use their sick days without cause. There was no sick benefit upon termination.
My employer had around 3,500 employees. At any given time over 1,500 had no sick time accumulated. Most of these were folks who viewed the sick leave as a right – and fearing loss of the benefit at termination – they regularly took their benefit. Clearly there were employees abusing the sick leave benefit. That means that employees called in sick once a month to get their unearned pay.
For the sake of argument, with no discrimination intended, let’s assume low wage abuse – say $8.00 per hour. If 1,500 employees, at $8.00 per hour, took one sick day per month we have: $8.00 x 8 hours x 12 days per year x 1500 employees = $1,152,000 dollars of unearned employee pay. And this assumes bottom end wages. Now apply those statistics to the major corporations of America – those who employ tens or hundreds of thousands. The sick leave losses are staggering – so we can understand their desire to limit the abuse.
I hear that my former employer is changing their sick leave policy to further fight abuse. The new corporate rage sweeping America is called Paid-Time-Off (PTO). The idea is to grant a set number of hours per month as a paid leave benefit. All of the hours accumulate as either vacation or sick leave – left to the discretion of the employee. Again, the idea is to minimize sick leave abuse. The consequence of this action is that employees will have to use earned vacation if they take a day off work because they are sick.
Pandemics and Paid Sick Leave:
Fast forward to the swine flu – and other possible contagious diseases that might one day strike at the heart of America. The Center for Disease Control is advising people to stay home from work if they are sick. But the financial burden of a sick day has been transferred to the employee – taking a sick leave in today’s work world means loss of potential income – or more accurately – a loss of future income.
As our corporations have worked to eliminate or discourage the abuse of sick leave policies – they have created an environment which discourages legitimately sick people from staying home. With the summer family vacation already planned, the employee cannot afford a sick day. A mild cough and sore throat – go to work. Slight fever and nausea – go to work.
The swine flu is a great example of the law of unintended consequences. More employer favored sick leave policies can threaten the entire employee population. More employer favored sick leave policies serve to threaten America in the early stages of a contagious pandemic.
Let me be clear – I am not attacking the employers. Employees who abuse sick leave policies have directly led to policies that threaten all of us. The United States Department of Labor should look at this issue. I have no great ideas to offer – perhaps a law could be enacted to dictate a national sick leave policy when a pandemic threatens. That could not possibly be fair – forcing employers to shoulder the burden of fighting the spread of illness.
So what are the options? How can we encourage legitimately sick folks in a pandemic environment to stay home from work? How do we do this without punishing business?