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December 27, 2010 / passiveprogressive

Sick days aren’t just for kids.

I woke up with a cold this morning: ominous burning at the back of the throat, runny nose, and a slight fever. Fortunately, I’m a student on winter break so I don’t have to work (even if I did have a job, It’s Christmas and a weekend). Unfortunately, it isn’t pleasant to be sick on Christmas.

But, let’s assume it wasn’t a holiday and I was working full time. There are numerous other developed countries I could have be born in, but mine (USA) specifically does not guarantee any number of sick days or paid sick-leave.

I think that’s a problem, but not just in the soppy union-loving way of most liberals: no sick days hurts business productivity.

Source: The Baseline Scenario

What you see in this chart is the number of paid sick-days in light blue, and the number of paid sick-leave (for longterm illnesses) days mandated by law.

Out of these developed countries, the US has put most of its faith in corporations to decide just how many days off workers receive – that’s not to say they receive zero. In many cases, companies will decide to have fairly liberal amounts of sick leave, but most often these are white collar positions.

While its important for white-collar workers to have the flexibility to stay home and prevent the transmission of illness to others, it’s even more essential for those working in the service industry to have that ability. In many cases they don’t.

Why? Employees working in service industries come into contact with a wider range of people, furthermore they don’t have the ability to track the spread of a disease. In an office workspace, even if others are infected, they can be warned about the threat of flu within the company and be advised to seek vaccination.

Take the example of Wal-Mart:

Sick days are permitted, but each counts as a demerit. Too many sick days results in termination from the job. The problem here is that there is no psychological buffer zone between taking a legitimate sick day and doing something that deserves a demerit – punishment. This results in workers coming in sick, handling goods that are then spread throughout the home, exchanging currency, etc.

It’s easy to see why someone working in service would make an excellent vector for disease.

Wal-Mart sick day policies are just one way in which the free market concept of labor fails in finding the most efficient option. Instead of simply maximizing efficiency through making sure the most employees are present, we need to consider the quality of work that people can do while sick. Furthermore, we need to consider the damage one employee could do to another person with a weak immune system.

Of course, the other side of the argument is that missed work days cost employers money. Here’s the problem though: adults managed through high school, and if there’s a system of tardies and absences in place to beat, you can bet they will. The solution? Allowing a certain number of work-at-home days without consequence might be a good first step.

This might seem like a long-shot for service jobs such as cashiers at Wal-Mart, but believe it or not most retail companies have online training courses that need to be completed on a regular basis.

Side note: as a cashier I did this for nine months, and and was mind-numingly boring.

But completing training courses at home while sick could be a good compromise for companies with fairly strict attendance policies. Then again, HR departments that treat their employees like cattle might not be trying to climb high in the tree of knowledge and innovation.

Fortunately for me, I’m sick (and can therefore go to Wal-Mart worry free). The rest of you had better use hand sanitizer the next time you visit a workplace with poor sick-day policies.

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