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Paid leave is key to slowing the spread of H1N1, says AFL-CIO

November 24, 2009

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one worker sick with the H1N1 (swine flu) virus will infect one in 10 co-workers if he or she goes to work while infected with the virus, according to a recent post on the AFL-CIO’s blog.

Family advocates and heath care professionals recently told the House Education and Labor Committee that along with vaccinations, and good hygiene practices, the best way to protect workers and slow the spread of the H1N1 virus is through guaranteed paid sick leave legislation, such as the Healthy Families Act, according to the union.

The CDC’s guidelines to employers and workers to slow the spread of the virus says workers who suspect they have the swine flu or another influenza-like illness should stay home and employers should allow workers to stay home “without fear of reprisals or…losing their jobs.”

But nearly half of all private-sector workers — and 76 percent of low-income workers — have no paid sick leave, according to the AFL-CIO. That leaves sick workers facing the dilemma of staying home and losing several days of pay or likely spreading the disease to fellow workers and the public. Many low-wage workers have jobs that have direct contact with the public, such as the food-service and hospitality industry, schools and health care.

Said Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families: Congress should waste no time in passing paid sick days legislation so that working people can earn paid time off and help prevent the spread of illnesses, without jeopardizing their economic security.

Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said paid sick leave benefits both employers, workers and their families along with customers and the general public.

Committee chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) said that Congress has been “pushing for universal paid leave policies for workers of all income levels.”

States the union’s blog post: “When you’re struggling to make ends meet, you’re going to do everything possible to not miss a day’s pay. The lack of paid sick leave encourages workers who may have H1N1 to hide their symptoms and come to work sick—spreading infection to co-workers, customers and the public. This isn’t good for our nation’s public health or for businesses.” Earlier this year, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) introduced the Healthy Families Act (H.R. 2460 and S. 1152), which would require businesses with more than 15 employees to provide workers with up to seven paid sick days a year to care for themselves or a sick child or spouse. At a Senate hearing on H1N1 earlier this month, Deputy Secretary of Labor Seth Harris announced the Obama administration’s support for the Healthy Families Act. The Healthy Families Act offers an important opportunity to provide workers with economic security by assuring that they have the ability to stay home if they are sick without fear of losing their jobs or being forced to go to work sick because they cannot afford to stay home. The AFL-CIO supports this bill.