The High Costs of Not Offering Paid Sick Leave

Maybe the person working near you, the one who dragged himself to work and is now coughing and sneezing, couldn’t afford to stay home.

Each week about 1.5 million Americans without paid sick leave go to work despite feeling ill. At least half of employees of restaurants and hospitals — two settings where disease is easily spread — go to work when they have a cold or the flu, according to a recent poll.

To address that issue, Chipotle began offering paid sick leave to all its employees in the United States this year. The restaurant chain is hoping to reduce the spread of infectious disease — like the norovirus outbreaks traced to its restaurants last year and earlier this year. Though many other industrialized countries already require employers to offer paid sick leave to all employees, the United States does not.

Paid sick leave is not free, of course. Economic theory suggests that its cost would be passed from employers to their employees in the form of lower wages or reductions in other benefits like vacation time. Yet employees and their co-workers may be better off with an incentive to take time off when sick.

A number of recent studies point to the benefits. A study by Philip Susser, now a medical student, and Nicolas Ziebarth, a Cornell economist, backs up Chipotle’s theory that paid sick leave could reduce the spread of contagion. Their study, published in the journal Health Services Research, estimated that 45 percent of the American work force does not have paid sick leave; that’s about 50 million workers.

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Jeffrey R. Ungvary President

Jeffrey R. Ungvary