FORT LAUDERDALE — Consider these scenarios as the nation enters the second wave of the swine flu season this fall:
• You feel feverish and start sneezing, but you're afraid of losing your job so you stay at work.
• Your child has the swine flu and will be out of school for at least a week — more if there are complications. You only have three vacation days left for the year.
• Your child's healthy, but his school shuts down after swine flu cases are cited. You need to be at work.
These workplace situations could be all too real for employees. And when it comes to sick leave, many workers have few options.
In Florida, about 3.3 million residents, or half of private-sector workers, are not able to take a paid sick day when they are ill, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research.
There is little legal protection for employees from being fired if they contract swine flu, lawyers say. Florida is an at-will state, meaning employers have the right to fire employees without contract or union protection.
Workers who are ill for longer than their vacation and sick days allow can sometimes take short-term disability, which pays a portion of salary, but not all employers offer it as a benefit.
Employees who have swine flu complications or who need to care for a sick family member could qualify for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act if they work for a company with 50 or more employees, says Maxine Neuhauser, a partner with Epstein Becker & Green law firm. But that leave is generally unpaid.
Because there are few protections, experts say employers need to offer paid sick days to discourage flu-infected workers from coming to work and to be flexible with worker arrangements, such as allowing them to work from home.
"If workers can't make ends meet, it's an incentive for workers to go in when they're sick," says Linda Meric, executive director of 9 to 5, a national association of working women. The organization has proposed federal legislation mandating employers provide up to seven paid sick days.
The federal government is urging employers to allow ill workers to stay home without fear of losing their jobs and to be flexible when workers' children are affected because of the flu or school being closed. But few employers are prepared for a pandemic.
"If this comes in a wave dealing with mass absences, it's a whole different program," says Nina Stillman, partner with Morgan Lewis law firm, who is recommending employers abandon previous policies that penalize workers for multiple absences.