Must Servers Ask: Swine Flu with Your Entrée?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are encouraging sick people to stay home from work or school as a precaution against students and workers spreading swine flu in our country through human contact. Given the reality of the U.S. workplace, however, this is a fairly meaningless recommendation. The reason: This perfectly rational request by the CDC is not paired with the requirement that employers give their employees the right to take a day off if they are sick.

In the United States, unlike nearly every other nation, workers do not have the right to stay home if they are ill. Currently, nearly 50 percent of private-sector workers have no paid sick days. For low-income workers, the number jumps to 76 percent, and climbs to 86 percent for food service workers.

If 9 out of 10 workers who serve you food do not have the right to job-protected paid sick days, then what are the chances they will be passing along the flu as they deliver your entrée? Probably pretty high if this becomes a pandemic. Swine flu is not a food-borne illness, but it might as well be if wait staff can’t stay home sick.

The World Health Organization announced this morning that we are not there yet, but we may be close to seeing a pandemic flu. The CDC is reporting that this flu is probably being spread mainly person-to-person through coughing or sneezing of infected people.

But, with more than four unemployed workers fighting over every job opening, what worker will decide to risk their job over a fever or cough? A flu that is mild in one person may be lethal to another, so staying home is the best thing for everyone. The mildly sick person gets well and doesn’t give the virus to someone who could become seriously ill from it. But if you have to go to work, then you have to go to work.

In New York, schools are being closed to limit the spread of the swine flu. But the majority of parents have jobs, so what will they do? Most likely, many of those children will end up in child care centers, which entirely defeats the purpose of closing the school.

This outbreak could not come at a worse time for our economy. Now that the flu is spreading, many will decide to cancel their plans because they fear that those who are sick will not stay home. Our already-weak economy cannot afford yet another disruption to demand.

Our economy also cannot afford the drag of millions losing pay over the possibility that they might have the flu. To keep our economy moving, workers need their pay, along with their time off.

So why not give the CDC’s recommendations some bite. Sick people would stay home if they do not have to worry about losing their job or a day’s pay. There could not be a more important moment for the Obama administration and Congress to guarantee every worker is paid sick days. A good place to start would be to move ahead on the debate over the Healthy Families Act, but this time as an emergency measure. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) plans to reintroduce this legislation next month. The bill would “guarantee workers up to seven paid sick days a year to recover from an illness or care for a sick family member.”

This is the kind of response needed to an incipient pandemic. After all, who wants to get swine flu over lunch?

Heather Boushey is Senior Economist at the Center for American Progress. To read more of her analysis and policy recommendations please go to the Economy page on our website.