© 2021 WKSU
Public Radio News for Northeast Ohio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Exploradio brings you captivating stories about science worth discovering and examines powerful questions worth answering.

Researchers Wade Into the Battle Over Paid Sick Leave


Chances are, if you’re feeling under the weather, you can call in sick and still get paid. But for around one-third of U.S. workers, that’s not an option.

And a growing body of evidence shows that the lack of paid sick leave has consequences for all of us.

In this week’s Exploradio, WKSU’s Jeff St.Clair looks at research on the costs of not calling in sick.  

Heather Dougan loves her job in customer service at a locally owned firm. 

“This is my chosen field," she says. But Dougan doesn’t get paid sick leave, and she needs it.

“For about three weeks now I’ve been going in with horrific pain,” says Dougan.

Her doctor says she needs surgery, but it’s going to have to wait until she’s earned vacation time.

“It’s very stressful knowing that I can’t do what my doctor has asked me to do right now,” she says.

That stress is the focus of the latest study by Cleveland State University social work professor Patricia Stoddard-Dare.

'It is more expensive for a business to have a sick worker present than to have a sick worker stay home.'

Her team looked at the health and well-being of nearly 18,000 U.S. workers and found that those without paid sick leave have significantly higher levels of psychological distress.

“And we further analyzed that to see that they reported that that psychological distress impacted them a lot,’” says Stoddard-Dare.

She says 'a lot' means people feel, "nervous, restless, fidgety, hopeless -- that everything was an effort, worthless” and really sad a lot of the time.

The study is the first to show a link between lack of paid sick leave and psychological distress.

The high costs of coming to work when sick
Stoddard-Dare says it’s part of a growing body of research showing how this basic benefit impacts workers and society as a whole. The most obvious example, she says, is that employees who don’t have paid sick leave are more likely to go to work when they’re sick.

“Which sounds like a ‘duh’ finding, but no-one had actually analyzed that before,” she says.

The implications, though, are way beyond 'duh.'

Stoddard-Dare says during the 2009 flu pandemic, people who came to work sick because they lacked paid leave infected a further 7 million co-workers. Some 1,500 people died because of that exposure.

She says lack of paid sick leave also leads to longer lasting illnesses, increased injuries, decreased morale, and lower productivity – what researchers call ‘presenteeism.’ 

“And the cost of presenteeism in the United States is in the billions every year,” she says, with estimates in the range of nearly $230 billion.

The data, says Stoddard-Dare, is conclusive in showing that "it is more expensive for a business to have a sick worker present than to have a sick worker stay home.”

The politics of paid sick leave
In 2012, Connecticut became the first state to mandate paid sick leave. Businesses, especially in the restaurant and retail sectors fought the measure. But 18 months later, a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research showed that their opposition had evaporated because of the lack of negative effects.

Four other states and more than two dozen cities have since enacted paid sick leave mandates.

'It should be the interest of society that people have long, healthy working lives.'

But the issue has become politically polarizing.

Nineteen states, mostly in the south, have passed laws that prohibit cities from requiring paid time off.

Stoddard-Dare believes the rush to preempt paid sick leave mandates is an organized movement. "How else could you have so much legislative activity happening on one topic throughout the country?”

The restaurant industry and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC have taken the lead on the issue.

“They tend to not like regulation,” says Kim Jinnett, executive vice president of the Integrated Benefits Institute, a non-profit, business policy think-tank.

For the health of the future workforce
Jinnett says employers who don’t offer paid sick leave accept higher worker turnover as part of the cost of doing business. Others, she says, find it better to tend to employees’ health needs.

“I do think that we’ll continue to see employers continue to go into those two camps.”

But, Jinnett says, with an aging workforce, denying paid sick leave is short sighted.   

“If we look at it as a whole," she says, "it should be the interest of society that people have long, healthy working lives.”

Ohio lawmakers last year inserted an amendment into a bill that preemptively blocks cities from mandating paid sick leave, among other worker benefits. A judge in Cleveland on Friday ruled that the measure is unconstitutional.

The state has promised to appeal.

However, new research from Cleveland State could get them to rethink the costs of blocking this benefit.