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The Left

Incentivizing Sick People to Come to Work Spreads Illness

People should support labor policies such as paid time off based on nothing but concern for their own health and well-being.

“Yeah, I’ve just been feeling really sick this week.”

I pick up my head, looking around to see whom I’ve overheard. Two baristas have struck up a conversation behind the register.

“I don’t know what it is. I almost wasn’t able to come in today,” one says. I turn back, noticing the now empty coffee cup and now half-eaten bagel the sick barista had given me. I push the rest of the bagel to the back of the table.

Improved work conditions are usually spoken about in terms of worker’s rights, of the need for respect and improved quality of life for those working in low wage industries. When arguing in favor of such policies, one is typically asked to empathize with these workers, and to try to understand the impact that such concepts as a living wage or paid time off can have on their individual happiness. This is something we ought to strive for regardless, yet we achieve it far too rarely.

This is perhaps nowhere more clear than on the issue of public health. Food service and grocery store workers are the face of the new labor movement, with employees at McDonald’s and Walmart some of the most visible faces of the “Fight for 15” while other movements are also demanding improvements in the workplace. These are people with whom we all interact, often on a daily basis. These are, in other words, people whose health has a large bearing on the health of the overall population.

And yet, we appear to have little interest in their health. The widespread conception of health insurance as a benefit to be provided by the employer combined with low wages makes it difficult for workers in low wage industries adequately to care for their health.

When money is tight, preventative medicine is, of course, more likely to be cut before treatment, meaning an increased likelihood of illness. Our current wage and labor policies make it more likely that low wage workers will become sick.

Furthermore, a lack of adequate provisions for paid sick leave works to induce or even force an ill worker to continue to report in for work. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only eight states and the District of Columbia require employers to provide paid sick leave. This is obviously less than ideal for the worker who has both the flu and a need to make this month’s rent. Yet, they are not the only ones who suffer.

In any industry, coworkers are put at risk, but the day-to-day facts of low-wage service jobs (especially food service) extends this risk outside of the business as well, reaching an incredible number of people in any given day. For every sickly workday performed by a food service worker, who has been given no viable alternative, each customer interacting with that worker faces potential exposure to illness.

Generally speaking, people prefer to stay home when they feel ill. And, generally speaking, restaurant and grocery patrons prefer that someone with a contagious illness not handle their food. The best interests of the worker are conveniently also the best interests of the public. All we have to do is allow laborers to act in their own best interest. Yet thus far, the majority of states do not.

Typically, arguments for policies like the living wage or mandatory paid time off ask the reader to empathize with the exploited worker; however, I am arguing that people should support such labor policies based on nothing but concern for their own health and well-being. And, as we have been blessed with a president who includes among his many neuroses a severe case of germophobia, a penchant for McDonalds, and an incredible wealth of self-interest, one might be hopeful that such concerns might be enough to improve labor laws at the federal level.

Vaughn Campbell is a student at Brown University. 

Vaughn Campbell studies international relations at Brown University. He has written also for The Brown Daily Herald.

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