The word "presenteeism" is a twist on "absenteeism." It is when employees come to work sick and infect co-workers, an activity that costs the nation's economy an estimated $180 billion in annual lost productivity.
Why do approximately 20 million Americans come to work sick every year, jeopardizing the recovery of their own health as well as potentially sickening their colleagues? Often, it's because they can't afford to lose the paycheck. Nearly half of all private sector workers have no paid sick days, and the statistics are even worse for low-wage workers, 79 percent of whom have no paid sick time off.
Our laws protecting workers on the job have not kept up with prevailing standards. The United States was the only country in a comparison of 22 developed countries by the nonprofit Center for Economic and Policy Research that fails to guarantee workers at least some paid sick days or leave. What that means for containing infectious diseases such as H1N1 influenza is that our workplaces expose many more people to harm. Employees without paid sick days are simply more likely to ignore public health warnings to stay home.
There is a bill in Congress to address the issue. The Healthy Families Act, sponsored by Democrats in the Senate and House, HR 2460, would allow workers to earn up to seven days of paid sick time off per year to be used for their own convalescence or to care for a sick family member. Employers with fewer than 15 employees would be exempt.
This isn't the first time an effort to codify basic workplace rights has been tried. Similar legislation was introduced and failed in years past. But now with Democrats in charge and President Barack Obama an avowed supporter of the idea as a presidential candidate, this type of labor law reform has a better shot.
Being able to take a day off when sick should not be a luxury reserved for those who work in shops with a beneficent employer. Paid sick days serve the public health, the bottom line and promote decent working conditions.