Am I too sick to work? Can I take the day off? For many Oklahomans, the answer to these questions is usually “no.” Private employers are not required to offer paid sick leave to their employees in Oklahoma. In the last legislative session two bills that would have required paid sick leave in the state were introduced — HB 1310 by Rep. Walke (D-Oklahoma City) and HB 1536 by Rep. Dunnington (D-Oklahoma City). Neither bill was even allowed a vote in their House committees, and that’s unfortunate. Sick leave will be needed by almost all workers at some time – to recover from an illness or to care for a sick child or family member. Denying workers the right to paid sick leave creates big costs for all of us.

The individual cost of being sick

We all get sick, and that shouldn’t put us at risk of losing needed pay or losing our job. Unfortunately in Oklahoma, it often means just that; 44 percent of workers employed in the private sector do not receive paid sick leave, meaning that a sick day is a day without pay. And the workers least likely to have access to paid sick leave are also those who can least afford to lose a day’s pay. Only 39 percent of private sector employees in the bottom 25 percent of earners have access to paid sick leave (compared to 84 percent of workers in the top 25 percent of earners). An hourly worker making minimum wage in Oklahoma could lose 20 percent of their weekly income by taking one sick day.  Two sick days could cost 10 percent of their income for the whole month.

For all too many low-income workers, taking sick leave without pay can make it impossible to cover basic expenses for the month. Even worse, it may lead to dismissal or discipline at work – Oklahoma is an at-will employment state, so workers can be fired for any reason, including taking a day off to deal with an illness. For workers who are already struggling to make ends meet, either possibility is dangerous. This means many of these workers will go to work despite their illness. This applies to sick children as well – they may be sent to school so their parent can go to work. This is unnecessary, and it’s unhealthy.

The public cost of working sick

Going to work while sick is not just bad for the sick person – it is bad for their co-workers and their community as well. Contagious diseases are more likely to spread when sick workers cannot stay home. During the 2009 outbreak of the H1N1 flu, almost 26 million employed Americans age 18 and older may have been infected. It is estimated that infected people going to work resulted in seven million additional cases of the disease. This spread of contagious disease is especially likely in the accommodation and food service industries, yet only 25 percent of workers in this industry have access to paid sick leave. More than half of food workers say they “always” or “frequently” go to work while they are sick. This can have serious negative consequences for public health. In 2005, a single restaurant worker at a sandwich shop in Michigan spread norovirus to over 100 customers.

Paid sick leave for employees can certainly help to contain the spread of contagious diseases, but it also improves overall public health outcomes. Workers with access to paid leave are more likely to receive regular medical care (preventing the occurrence of more serious health problems that require additional time off), and when they do get sick the episode is shortened because they receive care. Employees without paid leave are more likely to delay care, and when they do seek care they are more likely to visit an emergency room (which is open all hours but costs more) instead of a physician’s office (with lower cost but limited hours). This creates an additional financial burden for sick, low-income workers and for the community. These non-emergency visits to the ER increase wait times and hike the cost of health care for us all.

We all need paid sick leave

In the United States, nine states and the District of Columbia already (or will soon) require employers to offer paid sick leave to employees, and a large majority of Americans believe it should be the standard everywhere. Paid sick leave is good for the public and good for business. Businesses in states and cities that have adopted paid sick leave policies report lower employee turnover, higher employee morale, and improved job satisfaction. Studies have also shown that sick leave policies lead to increased profits for businesses that adopt them. Businesses benefit when workers have time to care for their health. All Oklahomans need paid sick leave.