It may seem obvious, but we now have statistical evidence to prove that giving employees the right to paid sick leave helps to curb the spread of infectious diseases by encouraging people to stay home when they are ill. According to a study in the Journal of Public Economics, US cities that introduce sick pay mandates can expect to see a 6 to 7 percent reduction in flu cases, which equates to around 3,000 fewer illnesses per million people per year.
According to the study authors, the fact that roughly half of the US workforce has no access to paid sick leave encourages “contagious presenteeism”, whereby employees continue to work when they are ill as they simply can’t afford to take time off.
This applies to more than 70 percent of workers whose wages are in the lowest 10 percent, as well as one-third of service sector workers. Since many of these employees are likely to have regular contact with the general public, continuing to work while sick is likely to contribute to the spread of contagious illnesses.
Between 2007 and 2015, eight US cities mandated paid sick leave. San Francisco was the first to do so, followed by Washington DC, Seattle, Portland, New York City, Newark, Philadelphia, and Oakland.
By analyzing the number of Google searches regarding flu in these cities, the study authors were able to estimate the number actual flu cases per year in each location. After crunching the numbers, they found that flu rates dropped by 6 to 7 percent in each city immediately after paid sick leave was introduced. This figure represents an average effect, and takes into account both summer and winter, when flu rates differ drastically. Yet a more detailed look at the stats indicates that the actual decrease in cases during the flu season can be as high as 40 percent.
In a second unpublished paper, the same authors used administrative sources to determine the number of doctor-diagnosed flu cases in each US state between 2010 and 2018. During this period, numerous states introduced sick-pay mandates, beginning with Connecticut in 2011. Among the others to do so were California, Massachusetts, Oregon, Arizona, Vermont, and Washington.
Each of these states saw an 11 percent decrease in flu rates in the first year after introducing paid sick leave, compared to states that did not offer this benefit to employees.
Given that the world is currently on tenterhooks over the increasing scale of the Coronavirus outbreak, many academics and other commentators are pointing out that offering paid sick leave to all workers can only help in the fight to stave off a major pandemic. With the US now one of the only developed nations not to provide this basic right, the coming weeks and months could well highlight the need for a re-think on this policy.