Healthcare Workers, Public Health Officials Push for Paid Sick Days

Workers not granted leave time to care for themselves or their children – and a lack of sick days causes high turnover in workplaces

December 13, 2012 -- Last week, Jennifer Bevacqua, a pediatric nurse practitioner at Randall Children's Hospital at Legacy Emmanuel Medical Center, treated a boy who was a year and a half old and had what Bevacqua described as eye motion issues, which can indicate a brain tumor. After being informed that he’d need an emergency MRI, his grandmother – who was the boy's primary caregiver and had taken him to the hospital – called her boss to ask if she could stay with her grandson while he received the care he needed.

“Her boss told her she would have to come in and work overnight or be fired,” said Bevacqua, who sees children every week whose parents are either unable to stay with them or provide follow-up care because of their inflexible work policies.

Bevacqua suspects many doctors and nurses are uninformed about the number of people who are unable to take the time they need to care for their children or themselves during an illness because they don’t always ask if their patients. “It's painful to even ask and know,” she said.

Healthcare providers and public health leaders – as part of a coalition of labor unions, racial justice organizations and small businesses – have campaigned actively for laws requiring paid sick days over the past few months.

They argue that forcing employees to work when they are sick – or go to work when their children are sick – has major public health impacts. Not only do contagious illnesses spread more easily, but people may lack the resources to manage their chronic health conditions, Bevacqua said.

“From ONA's perspective, this is an issue that we're involved in largely because of the public health ramifications,” said Sarah Baessler, director of health policy and government relations for the Oregon Nurses Association. All of ONA's members have paid sick days, but still joined the Paid Sick Days Now campaign out of concern for their patients.

State health officials are also investigating a spate of recent norovirus outbreaks around the state – including an outbreak that sickened 90 people last week at a private event at the Oregon Zoo.

State epidemiologist Dr. Katrina Hedberg said most likely the food served at the event had been handled by a food service worker infected with the virus.

Dr. Gary Oxman, public health officer for Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties, said the Multnomah County Health Department has not conducted a formal analysis on the public health impacts of paid sick days or the lack thereof, but was consulted when King County officials were evaluating the issue earlier this year. (As of Sept. 2, Seattle requires businesses with at least five full-time employees to provide paid sick leave, with the amount of leave provided depending on the size of the company.)

According to Oxman, 30 percent of food-borne illness outbreaks reported in King County between 2006 and 2010 were linked to food handlers. Numbers released by Family Forward Oregon say 76 percent of food service workers in Oregon do not earn paid sick leave.

“It's really hard to quantify how broad an effect it's going to be” if Portland adopts a similar ordinance, Oxman said, at least in terms of containing outbreaks of infectious disease. Paid sick day policies can have other significant health impacts, such as providing job protection for workers.

“There are people who lose their jobs all the time from being sick,” particularly in lower-paying industries, Oxman said. “Income is a huge predictor of health. It's really hard to predict the magnitude of those effects.”

A Portland woman who spoke with The Lund Report anonymously said earlier this year, she left her job teaching at a private preschool, in part because she was constantly ill and never got a single paid sick day. She was threatened with termination when she called in sick with stomach flu, despite an Oregon Administrative Rule saying child care providers with contagious symptoms should be relieved of their duties. She didn't have paid sick days, and received a monthly “health stipend” instead of insurance – which she lost if she missed more than two days per month.

“I was expected to come in no matter what,” she said. “A lot of times, I would come to work when I wasn't feeling well.”

“A lot of problems like this could be averted if we had a better culture about these things,” Bevacqua said. “It shouldn't even be a question that you get to stay with your child in the hospital.”

Image for this story by 401(K) 2012 (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr.

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