I’m usually one to have a strong opinion on something one way or another, once I figure out what the facts are. But after reading a story today about a proposed new law, I’m not sure whether I like it or not. I think I could be in favor of it but, well, I need more facts. Selling me on public policy changes based purely on theory is not easy to do.
The proposed law would require that when an employer tells a sick employee to stay home, they pay the employee for up to 5 days of sick leave. Currently there is no law forcing employers to offer any paid sick leave. But with H1N1 waking people up to the possibility of a pandemic, lawmakers are starting to reconsider this. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has been advising employers to encourage their sick employees to stay home. My school did the same thing for faculty, staff and student. But faculty have paid sick leave and, worst case scenario, students get the day off. We don’t usually hear complaints from them about that.
For millions of people, especially hourly workers, staying home for the good of the firm means less money in their pockets, a difficult decision for people to make, especially in a soft economy. They don’t want to infect their co-workers, but they can hardly afford to stay home. The CDC is spinning this as a good thing for employers: if your sick employee stays home, she won’t infect her co-workers and the amount of sick time taken overall will decrease. Paying for sick leave encourages her to make a decision that is in the best interest of the firm. Overall productivity will stay high and the few days of paid sick leave the firm has to pay is small relative to the potential loss in profits from a firm-wide outbreak.
(A quick market-based analysis: if the CDC is correct, profit-maximizing firms would have been voluntarily doing this all along — especially evil corporations who only care about profits. If the CDC is correct, you don’t need to force firms to pay for sick leave. So if they’re not choosing to do this, they must have concluded that they would rather have less-than-full productivity out of a more sick work force than have some people stay home sick and have to pay them for it.)
One problem I have with the article: no mention of any statistics. The CDC seems to just assume that when an employee goes to work sick, she will infect other people and they will infect others. While that’s certainly possible in theory, there is also the other side of the argument: many employees work while sick and maintain their productivity and don’t infect anyone. It depends on individual behavior, how communicable the disease is, and how long it lasts. I’m not sure how you would gather statistics on this to do a cost-benefit analysis here, but it seems that nothing like this has been attempted. But Congress can’t afford to worry about that — they’ll pass a law anyway.
Next thing you know, we’ll be passing mandated flu shots. Actually, that would no doubt be stricken down as unconstitutional. (Actually, I’m not sure that word means anything any more.) Instead, the government will just impose fines or taxes on firms that do not offer free flu shots to their employees. And they’ll tell firms: it’s for your own good. And it might be. It very well may end up costing less for the firm to pay for all its employees’ flu shots than endure a loss of productivity as people take sick leave. But without any data or analysis behind it, I’m skeptical.