Lack of Paid Sick Days Let H1N1 Spread, Group Says

Janice Simmons, February 16, 2010

Of the 26 million Americans age 18 or older who were infected by the H1N1 flu in 2009, more than a quarter of them may have contracted it from their coworkers, according to a new briefing paper from the Washington, DC-based Institute for Women's Policy Research.

Looking at the period between September through November 2009, the researchers—using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics—estimated that more than 7 million workers may have infected their fellow employees. This pattern was particularly prevalent among those in industries or companies with traditionally lower paying sick-day coverage.

"Work attendance by infected employees is a public health issue due to contagion," said study co-author Robert Drago, PhD, a professor of labor studies and women's studies at Penn State University.

Drago added that the US is one of only a few developed nations without universal paid sick days. While the vast majority (90%) of public sector employees do receive paid sick days, only about 60% of private sector employees have access to paid sick days. This leaves the nation ill prepared for outbreaks of contagious illness, he added.

"Workers without paid sick days must choose whether to go to work sick or lose pay—a choice that many can't afford to make," said the other co-author, Kevin Miller, PhD, a senior research associate with the Institute.

Absences related to illnesses during the H1N1 pandemic reached a peak in October. The drop in absence rates between October and November was twice as steep in the public sector as it was in the private sector, suggesting that the concept of "presenteeism"— appearing at work while ill—was common among private sector employees without paid sick days.

Although data on both private and public sector employees show absence rates declining in November, the decline is less steep for employees in the private sector. The absence rate in the private sector in November decreased by only 8.9% from the October rate, while in the public sector the decline in absence between October and November was more than twice as steep, at 21.8%. The absence rate was higher among workers in the public sector—consistent with greater access to paid sick days.

For the entire 2009-2010 flu season through Jan. 16, the CDC is estimating that between 41 million and 84 million cases of the deadly H1N1 flu virus occurred in the U.S.

While the H1N1 flu virus is appearing to level off, it is still causing hospitalizations and even death. Between 183,000 and 378,000 H1N1 related hospitalizations have occurred between April 2009 and Jan. 16, the CDC reported. Approximately 8,330 to 17,160,2009 people have died from the virus, with much of the hospitalizations and deaths occurring among those individuals ages 18 to 64.

Janice Simmons Janice Simmons is a senior editor and Washington, DC, correspondent for HealthLeaders Media Online. She can be reached at
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