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Many choose to work while sick

CHICAGO — For Veronica Mendoza, the message delivered by memo recently came across loud and clear: If you're sick, stay home.

So, when the 48-year-old food service worker recently came down with a runny nose, itchy eyes and other flulike symptoms, she wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed. But with no paid sick leave, she opted to punch the clock instead.

"I pretty much have to be at death's door before I'll call in sick," said Mendoza, a cafeteria worker for a company that contracts with schools.

Despite nationwide concern over the H1N1 virus and a barrage of announcements from public health officials imploring Americans to call in sick, many employees continue to drag themselves into the workplace, powered by over-the-counter medication and fistfuls of tissues.

The reasons for such fortitude can range from economic — as with Mendoza — to suspicions that the message is merely lip service. Pandemic or not, many staffers say, it's better to show up wheezing and sneezing than be perceived as a slacker, especially when jobs are scarce.

With only about 60 percent of all private-sector workers getting compensated when they are ill, unions and other advocates have seized on the current flu outbreak as a way to bring new energy to an old issue. Paid sick leave, which is among the most expensive benefits offered by employers, is largely unavailable to many low-wage workers, such as food servers, janitors and home care aides — people at risk for infecting others.

A 2008 survey by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found that "68 percent of those not eligible for paid sick days said they had gone to work with a contagious illness like the flu."

In November, U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., introduced legislation, called the Emergency Influenza Containment Act, that would mandate five paid sick days for employees with a contagious illness, such as H1N1.

The bill is limited to workplaces with 15 or more employees and would expire in two years, provisions that were not in previous proposals that stalled in committee, said a spokesman in Miller's office.

But many business groups, such as the Society for Human Resource Management and the National Retail Federation, oppose the measure. They assert that a recession is not the time to saddle companies with more entitlements, preferring to see firms deal with this issue on a case-by-case basis.

"We believe most employers and HR professionals are responding appropriately and proactively during this national emergency, either through paid time off or by relaxing attendance, allowing more alternative schedules and promoting telecommuting," Elissa O'Brien testified for the human resources group, urging Congress to reject one-size-fits-all mandates.

In response, the Service Employees International Union blasted the opposition. "Anyone who thinks it's a good idea to force someone battling H1N1 to come to work either couldn't care less about the well-being of his employees or couldn't know less about the way disease and infection spreads," SEIU secretary-treasurer Anna Burger said.

Staying home is not an option, said Mendoza, who has been serving lunch to students since 1998. "Missing even one day can be a chunk out of your paycheck," said Mendoza, whose salary helps cover her daughter's college tuition. "As long as you can function, you go in."

For another food service employee, Cathy Gaul, the consequences were even more ominous. After taking four days off for her illness and to care for a sick child, Gaul recently received a written reprimand, now a permanent part of her personnel file.

Mendoza and Gaul, members of SEIU Local 1, are employed by Sodexo Inc., which serves more than 200 accounts in the Chicago area in health care, education and corporate services. "The policy regarding absences was reviewed and approved by the union before being distributed to employees," said Alfred King, a spokesman for Sodexo. "The policy was created to monitor for excessive absenteeism, which can … potentially compromise our ability to deliver service to … our customers."

But sometimes, even for those with no fear of docked pay or disciplinary action, staying home is out of the question.

Take Jacquelyn Hutchison, 42, an office manager for the South-Southwest Suburban United Way who recently suffered through two bouts of bronchitis and pinkeye. The charity's busy season combined with an already thin staff motivated her to gut it out.

"If I'm not here, it means that someone else will have to pull my weight," said Hutchison, one of only three full-time employees in her office. "Being gone for even one day means returning to a ton of e-mail and other problems. … It's just not worth it."

Other factors, too, enter into the decision. As a single mother, Hutchison clings to every sick day in case her children are ill. And then there's the double-digit unemployment, with its unspoken message that everyone is expendable. "I really need this job," she said.

Being the boss isn't a free pass to languish on the couch with daytime TV.

Jill Sevelow, 50, owns Encore Wear, a designer discount boutique. Since opening last summer, she has logged 60-hour weeks — and that doesn't count her daily 120-mile round-trip commute.

So, when she was ambushed by chills, a fever and aches, there was only one thing to do: Ignore it. "I popped a few ibuprofen and wrapped myself in a blanket before I got into the car," said Sevelow, who had edited a business publication for 12 years before turning to retail.

Though her new venture is a labor of love, the siege left her feeling a bit wistful for her former life — specifically, the paid sick leave. "I had eight days a year," she said. "And I took every one."

Many choose to work while sick 01/09/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 8, 2010 4:09pm]

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