Got the sniffles?
While conventional wisdom may tell people to stay home if they're ill, more people are heading to work when they're sick. The reason: Experts said employees are hesitant to stay home from work if they don't have dedicated paid sick leave.
That hesitation paired with an unusually early and vigorous flu season is drawing attention to a cause that has scored victories, but also hit roadblocks in recent years — mandatory paid sick leave for civilian workers who don't already have it.
"We know about 40 million workers don't have a single paid sick day," said Vicki Shabo, director of work and family programs at the National Partnership for Women and Families.
Shabo said there also are millions who can't use sick days to take care of a sick child or help a loved one.
Employees without sick days are more likely to go to work with a contagious illness, send an ill child to school or day care, and use hospital emergency rooms for care, according to a 2010 survey by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center.
Nancy Lascheid, co-founder of the Neighborhood Health Clinic in Naples, said she hasn't had any patient come through the door who said they were forced to go to work because they didn't have paid time off.
"Most of the time, the employer doesn't want them around," she said.
Clinic staff gives patients a written excuse to be off from work and rarely have people said they couldn't call in sick because they didn't have paid time off, Lascheid said.
"It's been a nonissue as far as I'm concerned," she said.
Joyce Chastin, president of the HR Florida State Council, said there are quite a few companies across the state that offer specified vacation and sick time. But hourly employees — like people who work in retail or at restaurants — often don't have sick leave and go to work even if they're feeling ill.
"If you don't show up for work, you don't get paid," she said. "People who are not feeling well, but can't afford to miss a paycheck, they're going to trudge through."
Working through it can just make matters worse: A 2011 study in the American Journal of Public Health estimates a lack of sick time helped spread 5 million cases of flu-like illness during the 2009 swine flu outbreak.
"All it takes is one sick person working," Chastin said.
But while there are efforts across the country to provide mandatory paid sick leave to those who don't have it, people lacking sick time aren't the only ones going to work when they are ill. Many employees who are entitled to sick time or paid time off go to work ill, either out of dedication or the desire to protect their banked days off.
"No matter which way an employer goes, they run a risk of employees wanting to come to work rather than use earned or accumulated time off they have," Chastin said.
Still, she said, employers face a difficult decision if their employees choose to come to work when they're sick.
"It's a slippery slope," she said. "Employers need to be very careful about getting in the business of medical advice. It's a tough call for an employer to say to an employee: 'I believe you are sick and you should stay home.'"
Shabo said people should lobby their companies, and local and federal government officials, to start making changes toward mandatory sick time. That move, she said, would limit the number of people who go to work when they're ill.
"This is a serious public health problem, but also an economically imperative issue," she said.
__ The Associated Press contributed to this report.