On the Refrain of “Don’t Go to Work if You’re Sick”

“Don’t go to work if you’re sick!” This is a refrain I’ve heard all the time in the wake of the spread of the coronavirus.

I’m here to say that there’s a problem with this refrain.

What I just said may have some shock value, but hear me out. I wholeheartedly agree that, in an ideal world, someone should not go to work if they are sick. After all, we do not want the coronavirus, the seasonal flu, or any other sickness spreading around.

The problem, however, is that the laws on sick leave in many states, and in the United States of America, is so broken that many Americans have no choice but to go to work if they are sick. Furthermore, the culture at some employers encourages work while being sick and discourages taking care of yourself when sick.

For starters, there is no national paid sick leave law, and most states also do not have any paid sick leave law.[1] In a country where 40% of Americans are just one paycheck from poverty, it is simply not affordable to take an unpaid sick day, even if there’s an option to take an unpaid sick day.[2] Yes, we want people to stay home when they are sick, but what do we say to people who have to face a choice between being unpaid and facing poverty, and going to work while sick? Because America’s laws on sick leave are broken, we have to ask that difficult question.

Then, there are all the people who do not have any sick leave at all, not even unpaid sick leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) does provide for some unpaid sick leave,[3] but there are at least two limitations to the law (there may be more I am missing):

  1. Not all companies are covered under FMLA. Namely, companies with fewer than 50 employees are not covered by the law;[4] people who work for those smaller companies would need to hope that their home states have robust sick leave laws, or they’re out of luck.
  2. The common cold and flu are not generally considered to be serious health conditions for the purposes of the FMLA, unless serious health complications arise. In fact, the only condition under which a cold or flu counts as a serious condition for purposes of the FMLA is “if the individual is incapacitated for more than three consecutive calendar days and receives continuing treatment by a health care provider.”[5] I don’t know if the coronavirus will meet the seriousness threshold, but if it doesn’t (just as the flu doesn’t), then there is literally no federal sick leave protection for people with coronavirus. That should give people pause.

Worse yet, some companies, such as Walmart, are accused of punishing their employees for taking sick days.[6] What are you to say to a person who genuinely fears that they would be fired if they tried to take days off because they were sick? Even in places where there are robust sick leave laws, such as New York City, employers have at times still been known to try to (illegally) fire workers for using sick days.[7] Such work cultures are toxic, but for many, staying in that toxic work culture (even if it means working while sick) is the only way they can pay the bills and put food on the table.

So yes, I am in favor of people staying home when they are sick. However, if we are really serious about people staying home when they are sick, we must get to the root of why many people go to work when sick, which is that laws and many company cultures alike do not have a system that allows the sick to take care of themselves. And until we have a system that allows the sick to take care of themselves and stay home, we run the risk of a national health crisis.


[1] https://www.ncsl.org/research/labor-and-employment/paid-sick-leave.aspx

[2] https://fortune.com/2019/01/29/americans-liquid-asset-poor-propserity-now-report/

[3] https://www.dol.gov/general/topic/workhours/sickleave

[4] https://www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/WHD/legacy/files/employeeguide.pdf

[5] https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/opinion-letters/fmla/fmla-87

[6] http://www.businessinsider.com/advocacy-group-report-walmart-punishes-employees-sick-days-2017-6

[7] Here’s a story from a Chipotle in New York City: https://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/ny-chipotle-nyc-paid-sick-leave-law-worker-illegally-fired-20200226-alzjufinb5er3esoz2pfo6dvsi-story.html

2 Replies to “On the Refrain of “Don’t Go to Work if You’re Sick””

    1. Yep. You’re absolutely right. We tell people to not go to work when they’re sick, without thinking through the fact that many people are unable to easily be off of work when they are sick.

      Like

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