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Originally published May 1, 2009 at 3:30 PM | Page modified May 1, 2009 at 3:56 PM

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Guest columnist

Sick with swine flu but no sick leave

The advice to people who might have swine flu is to stay home from work. However, as guest columnist John Burbank writes, most low-income workers do not have sick leave to take care of themselves or their children if school closes. Businesses should be required to provide sick leave.

Special to The Times

SWINE flu has arrived in Washington state with 16 suspected cases and probably more, prompting justified concern by public-health officials and caution among people. Several Puget Sound area schools have closed and a pediatrician who worked in a Mill Creek office is suspected of having the disease.

The threat of a pandemic is certainly a worry. Swine flu cases in the United States jumped from zero to more than 100 in just four days. Swine flu cases are suspected in Seattle, Snohomish County and Spokane.

Our public-health system is gearing up to immediately respond to this outbreak and protect people. However the Legislature just tore a $100 million hole in public health with the new state budget. Bad timing. Makes you feel like you are on your own.

Last week, The Seattle Times editorialized to "take care of yourself — wash your hands and cover your cough. If you're ill with flu symptoms, go to the doctor, not to work." And there is the catch. Not all of us have the right to even one day of sick leave.

More than 1 million workers in Washington don't get sick leave. Most workers who handle food and meet the public have no paid leave. Women are less likely to have sick leave, because they are concentrated in jobs least likely to provide it and they more often work part time. We depend on women, particularly mothers, to take care of sick children.

Low-income parents are particularly unlikely to have paid leave. Nationally, two-thirds of women with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level don't get paid when they miss work to care for a sick child.

It has gotten worse in the past six years. The percent of Washington companies providing sick-leave benefits for full-time workers has dropped from 56 percent to less than 38 percent. That means the employees of over two-fifths of our state's employers do not have the right to sick leave.

In the hospitality and food service industry — the folks who serve your meals in restaurants or give you a bag of Big Macs at McDonald's — eight out of nine full-time workers have no sick leave. For part-timers, it is even worse: 24 out of 25 don't get sick leave.

What do we get with paid sick leave? Workers are more likely to stay home when sick, so they recover more quickly. That means that, as a customer, you won't get a side of the flu when you order your main meal.

We also know that children recover more quickly from illness and do better in school when their parents can take leave to care for them. Hospital stays are shorter, reducing health-care costs. Families can balance getting better with household finances.

Businesses also do better when sick employees stay home instead of spreading disease to co-workers. In fact, a study published in the Harvard Business Review found employees coming in sick most likely cost companies more than all their other health costs.

The Seattle City Council could actually do something to prevent the spread of swine flu, safeguarding families and our economy. They could pass an ordinance for minimum sick paid leave. Milwaukee, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., have done it.

People understand this common-sense policy. In San Francisco, the ballot initiative for paid sick days passed with 60 percent of the vote. In Milwaukee, the initiative gained 69 percent support. And in Washington, D.C., they didn't need an initiative. The City Council simply voted it into law.

Our locally elected officials should do the same, in Seattle, King County, Bellingham, Yakima, Wenatchee, Tacoma, Spokane ... in fact, in every locality around the state.

As voters, we should not meekly request minimum sick leave. We should demand it immediately. The spread and seriousness of swine flu might only accelerate as politicians deliberate. Time's a'wasting.

John Burbank is the executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute in Seattle. He can be reached at

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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