Can Workers Afford to Answer the Governor’s Call on Swine Flu?

Governor Schwarzenegger is asking all Californians who get the flu to stay home from work, to minimize the spread of the swine flu virus. Public health officials always recommend that people with the flu minimize contact with other people, but the rapidly evolving global flu outbreak gives this advice new urgency. However, it may be hard for the 5.4 million California workers who don’t have paid sick leave to follow this suggestion. When forced to choose between a paycheck and an unpaid day at home, many Californians may feel they cannot comply with the public health standard if it means sacrificing income they need.

Nationally, only one in five low-wage workers (21 percent) has paid sick leave. Restaurant staff, who work directly with the public (and the public’s food) all day, are the least likely to have paid sick leave – only 15 percent do.

San Franciscans should have an easier time complying with the Governor’s request. Under an ordinance adopted in 2006, all workers in San Francisco can take up to nine paid sick days – up to five days in firms with fewer than 10 employees – per year when they are sick, to get preventive health care, or to care for someone in their family who is sick.

This unfortunate situation is a good reminder that sick leave benefits are a public issue, not just a private one.

— Vicky Lovell