New York City and The Sick Pay Dilemma

Flu season has hit the United States particularly hard in 2012. Forty-one states have recorded cases of the flu, and the CDC reports a whopping 5.6 percent of the population visited their healthcare provider with flu-like symptoms in the past week. The unusually high levels of illness have thrust the issue of health and the workplace to the forefront in New York City. On Friday, dozens of protestors assembled at City Hall to advocate for the passage of an important measure that would mandate five paid sick days per year for employees working at companies with at least five employees. The measure, which was proposed over three years ago, has yet to come to a vote.

The measure faces opposition from a variety of people, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. Critics of the measure view it as impractical and unfair. They argue that small businesses–struggling given the depressed state of the economy–simply can’t afford to add another benefit for employees. There is also the potential for abuse; workers might work through an illness but then call in sick to attend a Yankee game. However, businesses should trust employees to use the policy responsibly. They would find that the benefits of sick pay outweigh the costs if they took a broader view of illness in the workplace. Offering sick pay can avoid some problems that negatively impact the bottom line and even potentially help profitability.

Without paid sick days, employees are faced with an incredibly tough decision when they fall ill. Should they call in sick and lose a day’s worth of wages that could be vital to making ends meet? Should they head in to work and try to make it through the day? Many end up choosing the latter, and the result ends up hurting businesses. First, a sick employee will not be as productive as they are when healthy. Businesses end up paying for the day of work, but they receive marginal effort in return. To compound matters, sick employees risk spreading their disease to other employees. According to the American Journal of Public Health, nearly five million cases of the flu were transmitted in 2009 due to a lack of sick time pay nationwide. The consequence is a domino effect; more and more employees fall ill and productivity tanks. Lost productivity is not the only worry, either. Various sectors such as the restaurant industry, a staunch detractor of the measure, also face the threat of losing customers. Sick employees interact with customers, and they could diminish a service enterprise’s image and hinder customer loyalty if they are visibly ill.

As the ball shifts into the New York City’s City Council’s court, they must consider the merits of requiring sick pay and finally pass the measure. When viewed holistically, workers, businesses, and society gain from the new benefit. Public health and rising healthcare costs have dominated the political press lately, and it would be irresponsible not to take progressive steps to promote the people’s well being.

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