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The Working Sick

Mother feeling forehead of her daughter

By Roberta Downing, PhD (Senior Legislative and Federal Affairs Officer, APA Public Interest Directorate – Government Relations Office)

Have you ever had to work even though you had a cold or the flu because you couldn’t afford to lose a day’s pay? Or have you ever missed work to care for a sick child and then taken a hit in your paycheck for those days at home? Too many parents in our country have to decide – is my child too sick to go to school? – simply because they can’t afford a smaller paycheck if they stay home to care for them. These situations are stressful for parents, spread illness, and delay recovery from sickness for children.

Thirty-nine percent of private sector workers (i.e., 43 million people) in our country receive no paid sick leave at their jobs.[i] Low-wage workers are particularly unlikely to have paid sick days.[ii] To address this reality, President Obama announced some very important policy goals. Last night in his State of the Union address, he called on Congress to pass legislation to allow workers up to seven days of paid sick leave per year. Just last week, he signed a Presidential Memorandum that allows federal workers up to six weeks of paid leave for parents of a newborn. He proposed more than $2 billion to encourage states to develop paid family and medical leave programs. Furthermore, he urged Congress to pass legislation giving federal employees six more weeks of paid parental leave.

Congress, unfortunately, remains unlikely to grant the President’s wishes. Last year, no Republicans co-sponsored the Healthy Families Act, a bill to provide most workers up to seven paid sick days per year and the new congressional majority has offered no alternatives to achieve this goal. However, in lieu of congressional action, momentum continues to grow around the country to change state and local policies. Connecticut, California, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia are the first to offer their residents paid sick days. Cities have also acted to grant their workers paid sick days and active campaigns to pass statewide legislation exist in many states (to see what is going on in your state, click here).

Research illustrates several benefits related to offering workers paid sick days. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health conducted a study looking at the relationship between workers’ access to paid sick days and prevalence of occupational injuries. They found that workers with paid sick leave were 28% less likely to sustain injury at work than workers without access to paid sick leave. This was particularly true for workers in high risk occupations.[iii] Research also shows that access to paid sick days likely reduces workplace flu transmission.[iv] In a survey of employers in Connecticut, the first state to require paid sick days starting in 2012, employers reported that the law had little to no impact on their business costs and more than 75% of the employers surveyed supported the law.[v]

APA supports the Healthy Families Act and the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, also known as the “FAMILY Act,” which aims to provide paid family medical leave. (U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro [D-CT], a lead sponsor of this legislation, wrote a blog post for APA on this issue.) The United States remains one of the only developed nations that fails to require comprehensive workplace leave policies.[vi], [vii] It’s time for us to catch up with the rest of the world and for families to be able to care for each other when they need to.


[i]   U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics (2014). National Compensation Survey: Employee benefits in the United States, March 2014. Retrieved from:

[ii]   Winston, P. (2014). Work-Family Supports for Low-Income Families: Key Research Findings and Policy Trends. Retrieved from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:

[v]   Appelbaum, E., Milkman, R., Elliott, L., & Kroeger, T. (2014). Good for Business? Connecticut’s Paid Sick Leave Law. Retrieved from Center for Economic and Policy Research:

[vi] Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (2010). Additional leave entitlements for working parents. Retrieved from

[vii] Heymann, J., Rho, H.J., Schmitt, J., & Earle, A. (2009). Contagion Nation: A comparison of paid sick day policies in 22 countries. Retreieved from Center for Economic Policy Research:

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