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Germ theory: Nicolas Ziebarth researches the effects of sick leave legislation.


In the United States, where about half of all workers lack paid sick leave, the flu is estimated to cost $87 billion annually. But according to research by Nicolas Ziebarth, flu rates would decline by at least 5 percent if Congress authorized mandatory paid sick leave.

"There's compelling evidence that a lot of people go to work sick," says Ziebarth, assistant professor of policy analysis and management. "Paid sick leave is an effective tool to reduce the share of people who go to work when they are ill."

Those without coverage, especially low-wage employees, are more likely to work with an illness. "Not only is their work productivity lower, but when they have infectious diseases, like the flu, they spread these diseases, so co-workers and customers get sick," says Ziebarth. "You have negative spillover effects, and nobody wants that--no employer, no customer, no worker."

No other research has looked at changes in the paid sick leave system and gauged their effect on infection rates, because only a handful of cities and states have laws that require mandatory sick leave. In 2007, San Francisco was the first, and was followed by Seattle, Portland, New York City, and Philadelphia.

On the state level, Connecticut passed a mandatory sick leave law in 2012, and the movement is gaining momentum, with California, Massachusetts, and Oregon enacting laws in the past two years. "Those big states will be game-changers," Ziebarth says, as other states watch to see what effects the laws have.

The laws generally require employers to provide one hour of paid sick leave for every week an employee works. After eight weeks of work, employees accrue one day of sick leave. Opponents of paid sick leave typically argue that it dampens job creation and encourages workers to call in sick when they are actually well. But Ziebarth believes employees generally use sick days when they really need them. "That minimizes cheating on the system," he says.

Published by the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research,

"The Pros and Cons of Sick Pay Schemes" established a theoretical framework showing how paid sick leave reduces the number of people coming to work sick, called presenteeism. Ziebarth and co-author Stefan Pichler compared flu rates in the U.S. cities and states that had enacted mandatory sick leave, and found a 5 percent decrease in the flu rate after the laws had been passed.

In a related paper written with Human Ecology undergraduate Philip Susser '16 and under review with the journal Health Services Research, Ziebarth found that those most likely to work while ill are employees making $20 or less per hour. "That is the group that we are most concerned about: unhealthy low-wage workers who have to come to work sick."

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Title Annotation:inside mvr
Author:Kelley, Susan
Publication:Human Ecology
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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