I was sick this week. A non-serious, but icky, kind of sick. I won’t go into the details here. But, I stayed home from work for a couple of days. I believe very strongly in not infecting others when I’m sick. I don’t send my kid to school when she’s sick either, even if it means I have to miss work. The weird thing about all of this is that I can’t help but feel a little guilty whenever I miss work. Why do I feel guilty about doing something that is not only good for me, but good for business and society as a whole?
Like most people of my class, I first entered the work force with part time, contingent and temporary positions in restaurants and retail. I had little, if any savings, and if I didn’t show up to work, I didn’t get paid. As a result, I didn’t take my first sick day for many years after I started working, and that one was only because I vomited at work just before my shift started. There was no way to pretend I was fine. It’s not that I never got sick. It’s because I was broke and the money was more important than whatever ailment was bothering me.
The jobs I had used to encourage this kind of behavior. Since I was there all the time, I heard the way the bosses complained about anyone who missed a shift. And in my reviews every year, they would praise my attendance. It got to the point where I internalized this mentality. I was proud of myself for never taking a sick day. I felt like it showed me to be strong and dedicated.
My attitude changed completely when I got promoted to management in a corporate retail store. I realized very quickly that employees who show up no matter what are bad for themselves and bad for business. They are less productive and they spread their sickness to other employees and customers. It is unbelievably obvious that it is better to have one employee miss a few days than have all of your employees be at 50-75% of their usual capabilities.
The problem is, a huge chunk of those employees were part time, contingent and temporary, just like I was. They needed every dollar of their paychecks, just like I did. So, I couldn’t insist they stay home even though I wished they would. Needless to say, I was very happy when Connecticut, my home state, passed a mandatory paid sick leave law. While it doesn’t go far enough*, it is great for everyone in the state. Now there is less reason for people to have to choose between getting paid and getting healthy. It makes for happier and healthier citizens and more productive businesses. But, this shouldn’t be a big surprise, many business organizations hate it.
I believe the reason for the hatred is that the business culture as a whole has internalized the attitude that still causes my guilt when I miss a day of work. The economy is not made up of rational actors no matter how hard the free market advocates try to say otherwise. A shocking number of business decisions are made because that’s the way it’s always been done. It is one of those things that’s just passed down from person to person that a business doesn’t want to pay a person who isn’t doing work. But, actual economic analysis shows that companies save money with paid sick leave (The Bureau of Labor Statistics says businesses save $1.17 per employee per week). The opponents can’t seem to do any better than surveying managers who say they don’t like it.
It would be great if the rest of the country would catch up with Connecticut, and the rest of the civilized world, and pass their own mandatory paid sick leave laws. And I need to get over my guilt when I take a day off. I am helping myself, my family, my employer and society as a whole. There is certainly no reason to feel guilty about that.
*The law only covers businesses with 50 or more employees and it doesn’t cover temporary or day labor.