May 30, 2010
Recession, technology, shrinking benefits lead to fewer workers calling in sick
The Associated Press
Jeremy Lesniak — holding his two cellphones and pager in his home office — hasn’t taken a full sick day in more than six years. (The Associated Press)
Jeremy Lesniak owns a small Web design firm in Randolph, Vt. He has 10 employees and hundreds of clients. Being sick isn’t an option.
“I have two cellphones and a pager,” he says. “I have taken partial sick days or just worked from home, but I haven’t had a real one in over six years.”
The swine flu epidemic had employers desperately trying to keep sick workers at bay, calling into question companies that didn’t. But the economic meltdown has stepped up pressure on worker bees and bosses alike to produce from home rather than heal in bed, says Dave Couper, a career coach and corporate human resources consultant.
“There’s an implicit requirement to be at work — partly because of the fear of losing your job if you’re not there,” he says. “Before, companies were OK about people being out sick. Now I don’t see that as much. I’ve known people who have e-mailed from their hospital room or been on conference calls where they can hardly speak they’re so sick. The recession has made it worse.”
Some workers fear demerit systems for calling in sick — or they’re up against policies that allow no sick pay at all. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 39 percent of private-sector employees fall into the latter category.
Sick time matters
How important is paid sick time? According to a 2008 study by the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center, 82 percent of respondents considered paid sick leave for themselves a “very important” employee benefit. It ranked fourth after equal pay for equal work, a safe workplace and affordable health insurance — and ahead of retirement benefits, paid vacations and flex time.
Only 41 percent of full-time workers in Washington had paid sick leave in 2009, according to the Washington State Employee Benefits Survey. Among part-time workers, 14 percent received paid sick leave. Some employees also had paid undesignated leave, which could be used for sick time or vacation time: 21 percent of full-timers and 8 percent of part-timers.
-- NWjobs staff
A survey of U.S. workers conducted in 2008 by the Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit research group that monitors the changing work force, found that 63 percent received at least five paid days off per year for personal illness. Low earners were much less likely to receive that number, which has been on a downward trend since 1997.
“More than half the work force say their employers call them at times when they’re not supposed to be working, on a pretty regular basis,” says Ellen Galinsky, the group’s president and co-founder.
Even those who set their own sick policies feel crunched. Gina Kazimir has an online communications firm and prides herself on speedy service.
“I don’t take any days off. Even when I had swine flu I checked e-mail at least once or twice a day — and I was so sick I could barely shower,” she says. “Vacations are a challenge. I usually make sure I have some wireless access just in case.”
The rise of mobile devices and computing systems that allow people to work remotely make it easier to keep the work flowing from sickbeds.
“What it comes down to is a need to refine corporate policy,” says Cary Landis, chief executive of Virtual Global, a Morgantown, W.Va., provider of cloud-computing systems that help employees work at home. “Managers and HR executives need to take a look at those policies to make sure that we’re getting the most out of it without tying a virtual rope around people who are home sick or on vacation.”
Galinsky, of the Families and Work Institute, agrees.
“Work is a marathon. We keep running harder and faster,” she says. “What we know from research is that work is really much more like interval training. You need time for reset and recovery.”
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