Working While Sick: An Epidemic?

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A group of leaders in the food service industry gathered in Washington, D.C., recently to discuss the alarming findings of a new survey. The study, conducted by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United – a national organization that represents and supports restaurant workers – found that two-thirds of restaurant workers go to work when sick.

The study sheds light on some serious underlying issues in the food service industry: Nearly 90 percent of workers reported they get no paid sick days and 60 percent said they did not receive any form of health insurance. But the study also highlights an obvious problem for diners who eat the food handled by sick workers.

June Lindsey, a Detroit woman with more than 30 years of experience in the food service industry, knows a lot about going in to work sick. She shared the following story in the study:

“[One day] I had a really bad cold. My nose was running, I was sneezing, [and] I had a bad cough and a fever. I could not call in sick because no work meant no money and I couldn’t afford it at that time. My kids were very young, so I went to work to see if I can make it through the day. Halfway through the day, the sneezing, coughing and runny nose got worse. I asked the manager, ‘I am really sick and need to go because I could make others sick and I am dealing with food.’ She laughed and told me, ‘Try not to  cough, then.’ So I had to work that day sick, and who knows how many customers I got sick because I couldn’t go to the back and leave the counter to wash my hands after every sneeze or nose wipe. Later on, all of us got sick one by one, and all this came from another worker that came to work sick like me, but was not allowed to leave work.”

While food service is the most recent industry to address the problem, it’s not exclusively theirs. According to the website for MomsRising, a group that pushes for reform on issues like maternity leave, fair wages and paid family illness days, 55 percent of workers in the retail industry and 48 percent of workers employed in the general private sector don’t receive paid sick days.

If you come in sick, there’s a good chance your co-workers and customers will get sick, too — and in some cases, passing on your illness can cause potentially life-threatening situations.

Take the case of Amy*, for example. As the mother of a young son who is being treated for a blood disease — his recovery from which depends on his avoidance of illness — Amy pays vigilant attention to those who enter her son’s room at the renowned children’s hospital where he is staying. Recently, the poor health of one of the hospital’s staff members compromised the well-being of Amy’s son: “On Saturday, as I woke up, I noticed that our nurse was sick,” she says. “No one is supposed to be allowed on our floor if they are sick and definitely not in our rooms. This is a nurse whom we really like and who has been with us from the beginning. When I wouldn’t allow him back in the room, he explained that the hospital does have a policy that the nurses have to call in if they are sick. Unfortunately, the hospital has another policy that causes nurses to be written up if they call in sick. It’s a Catch-22 that puts kids at risk.” Amy and her family are trying to get the hospital policy changed, since she says it caused “a good nurse to make a poor choice.”

While Amy’s incident may seem like it would be an isolated one in the health care field, a recent study by the Journal of the American Medical Association says otherwise. This summer, the AMA published the findings of a survey of 537 medical residents from around the country, in which 57 percent of residents said they’d worked while sick, the Kansas City Star reports.

With the advent of flu season, it can be tough to know what to do when you know you are too sick to go to work, but are worried about the repercussions of skipping a day.  Here are a few ideas to help you find a better alternative to working while you’re sick:

1. Switch shifts: If you work in a restaurant, hospital or retail environment where workers are scheduled in shifts, try switching hours with a co-worker. Create a list of all your co-workers’ phone numbers and keep it at home. That way, if you’re feeling too sick to work, you can call a colleague and ask if she can cover your shift. Just make sure that you offer to cover one of hers in return, or to repay the favor when she isn’t feeling well.

2. Get a doctor’s note: Though asking your doctor for a note may make you feel like you’re back in the fifth grade, doing so will lessen your chances of being reprimanded — and provide you proof of your illness should your employer think you were  playing hooky.

3. Work from home: If you have a desk job or another occupation that doesn’t necessarily require your physical presence, working from home can be a good alternative for those who don’t want to — or can’t — take a sick day. It will prevent you from spreading your condition to colleagues and clients, and will also allow you to get your work done while you recuperate.

4. Check out the legalities: While the Healthy Families Act — which would require employers to provide employees with one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked — has recently been reintroduced in Congress, it has yet to pass. In the meantime, many employers do have guidelines when it comes to working while sick, which means you might have the right to – or might be required to — take the day off if you’re not feeling well.  Most large employers, for instance, must legally allow workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid sick leave per year, under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

5. Ask for a substitute duty: If you think you must go to work while sick, talk to your employer about alternative duties. Instead of working directly with customers at a retail store, for example, ask if you can work in the stockroom instead. If you work at a hospital, ask to cover a floor that won’t put you in contact with patients that have compromised immune systems.

For more on sick leave and work, check out:

The National Restaurant Association Issue Briefs

MomsRising Paid Sick Days Campaign

The U.S. Department of Labor Family and Medical Leave Act

*Last name withheld for privacy.

47 Comments
  1. Back in the early 1990′s, I was on a very small team. It was Christmas/New Year’s time frame, and just about everyone else was on vacation. So I HAD to go in. One day, I felt terrible and went to Medical. The doctor asked how I felt. I told her – everything hurt.

    Then she asked – how did I get to work? I told her – I walked half a mile to the train, took a train, and then a ferry, then walked at least another half-mile to the office. Why? She was amazed – I had a 103 fever and I had a BAD case of flu. She gave me medication, called my department and sent me home. I was sick as a dog for a week.

    Without a medical department I might have made it to work another day or two – I thought I was just lonely and overworked, and it never occurred to me to take my temperature!

  2. One of the most depressing articles I’ve ever read. Get a doctor’s note to “prove” you weren’t “playing hooky”????? Who are we? Responsible adults? Or juvenile delinquents? I’m self- employed now, but for years I’ve gotten sick at least once during cold/flu season because either 1.) some insufferable Type-A workaholic or 2.) the poor person who reported to #1 and therefore didn’t dare call in sick sneezed, coughed and breathed the hell out of the notoriously stale, poorly ventilated office air and passed their crap along to the rest of us saps. Enough is enough. Human beings get sick. Usually it’s minor. A day of rest and you’re fever free (and with luck no longer contagious) and good to go. But as is the case of Amy* featured in this article, you can be threatening someone else’s life if you demonstrate the common sense of a turnip and refuse to quarantine yourself to your own home to recuperate. When are we going to learn?

    • Yeah- sounds good. But, my daughter had pneumonia. Called in sick for only 1 day. Had a docter’s excuse. Returned to work and got fired for being ill. And, no her prior work record was good. In fact, she was getting a promotion.
      ‘Thank you Marriott!!!!!!!!

      • I think this country is still stuck in the “Industrial Revolution”. Employees are afraid to get sick or take vacations. People in Europe would be shocked to hear about situations like these. This has to change asap.

    • When are we going to learn? I work for a company that does not give us sick days. No work no pay. What is there to learn about that?

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  9. Even some really huge corporations do not have paid sick days. If you are sick and you need the money, you work. That is the way it is for many.

  10. We have sick leave but, some people refuse to take it. In the last 6 months one co-worker has infected 2 other employees not once but twice with Bronchitis and Strep throat. One person got infected so badly they were out of work for 4 days. Now tell me is that fair.

  11. I know the feeling of many in the article. For many years I worked retail when my oldest was young and being a single mom, I had no choice. No work no money for child care, clothing, housing or food and when I did get sick days working as a store manage – I worked with the flu because everyone else was already sick so it fell to me to make sure that the store was covered. After leaving retail I worked for several companpies that did not offer sick days so you had to use was use vacation time to cover sick days and then no time off during the summer months. At the present I work in a very small physicans office with just him and I – so there is no one else to call if I am sick. It takes over a month to find someone to cover when I go on vaction. Being sick not an option for me. If I am feeling bad – try my best to stay away but that doesn’t always work.

  12. Too often the Employer’s rules regarding sick days do not allow a person to stay home and recouperate. At my workplace, calling in sick will count against an employee even if the person does not have any attendance issues. People don’t want to work sick nor do they want to lose their jobs.

  13. Love the saterical advice about get a note from your doctor. Do you know how much it costs to go to the doctor? If you don’t have any health insurance, its about two times as much as a restaurant worker makes in a day (including tips). That is if they work a full shift.

    Also, going to the doctor with a cold is spreading that cold at least as much as working all day. I cringe everytime I go to the doctor and the waiting room is full of sniffling coughing sickies. Never touch the magazines, arm rests, or railings on the stairs!

    • I too found their suggestions on this article hysterical. I went through the whole thing thinking this article will teach people something…until I read the suggestions for avoiding working while sick! Even the ‘cheap’ place here in town that everyone piles into because they are poor costs $60+ for one visit, not to mention they always want to run every test in the book and prescribe medication that costs a fortune! Minimum wage here is $7.25, and most food/retail establishments pay minimum. $60 is a whole shift…a long shift to be working if you are ill. Many places my friends and I have worked in the last few years have also forbid people from getting others to pick up their shifts. We are not allowed to give out/exchange phone numbers or do any switching unless the managers make the decision.

  14. No work = no money. Makes it simple you work no matter how horrible or infectious you are and companies like it that way. They don’t have to pay for healthcare that you would use on that sick day they are paying you for. Though they haven’t figured out yet that when you are really sick you don’t really do that much.

  15. Our company just enforced a policy which states that we have to call in sick atleast 24 hours in advance or it counts as an unexcused absence, even if you have sick/vacation time to use. You are aloud 6 in a rolling calendar year. Who knows 24 hours ahead of time they will be sick? Most companies I’ve worked for have a 1 or 2 hour before your shift guidline. It’s just promoting the spread of infectious illness throughout the office. If I catch something and bring it home to my 4 month old daughter because someone didn’t want an unexcused absence, I will complain as high up as needed to change the policy!

  16. I got Mono from a customer who was sick. She came in on a blizzard day and was coughing and sneezing all over my counter. I could not leave my area to wash my hands. I tried using the spray cleaner we have for the counter while I was cleaning everything she or I had touched, but I was out for three weeks. Also one manager came in terrribly sick with a respriatory infection and could have gotten a paid day off and got the whole store sick. I mean everyone and then their families too. Something has to be done. Since I no longer work in retail, no colds!!!

  17. I have asthma and severe allergies. I work as a teacher so I get sick leave and was told my first year to stay home if sick but most students and teachers dont so I spend most the school year sick and ussually twice as bad as the people I caught it from. I am currently fighting something along with another teacher and we have to be at school because 200+ kids are relying on us to be there and we cant stay home a week, waiting to get well.

  18. The author has missed the mark on this one. It’s not the lack of medical coverage or paid sick days that keeps people working while sick. Unless you are a union member protected by a contract you do not dare miss work in this economy or you will lose your job. There are a lot of people out there waiting for opportunity to knock and when you stay home cause you are sick that is their opportunity to take your job. I am a professional/manager and I do not dare stay home while sick or I will lose my job. Companies are brutal right now.

  19. I’m a nurse @ a nursing home with medically compromised and elderly patients. My boss told me I was expected to come in even with a fever and/or contagious as it would be difficult to fill my shift. He meant it! So I worked 32 hrs this weekend with a one hour break, sore throat fever, lost my voice because I am a new hire and can’t afford to lose my job.

  20. I am the lone clerical worker in a small therapist’s office. I always seem to get sick around timesheet/payroll time. I’m the only one who know how to process the electronic timesheets that the therapists submit. Naturally, the boss doesn’t know how to do my job.

    Once, I came to work sick, processed the timesheets and emailed the data to our bookkeeper who does the payroll taxes and stuff. I made an appointment with my doctor for the next afternoon. I came to work the next morning to finish off the paychecks (the bookkeeper emails back the net pay information) and left at noon to go to my appointment.

    My doctor couldn’t believe that I had been to work that morning. He said that I had the highest temperature of everyone else that had come in that day. He usually asks me if I want to take a day off to rest. He was so upset with me that this time he ordered me to stay home the next day.

    What are you supposed to do when no one else in the office knows how (or wants to learn how) to do your job?

    • Julia, I would demand a raise if I was that crucial to my company. What would your company do if you were hospitalized, not pay anyone? Do you not vacations at month end because the timecards and payroll will not get done? I would be talking to my boss to get a backup for me.

    • - @julia – put your hand out and say “Pay raise biyotches if you want your checks” muwhahaaa (well something of a more polished and professional version of that – )not to mention a thought , crunch some #’s see what it costs when so many get sick and then counter with the numbers if paid sick days were given
      ect ect you see where im going

      @kat
      thats cannot possibly be legal or part of policy
      1. find the employee handbook and review sick policy
      2. consult with a lawyer
      3. contact OSHA
      4. Consult with upper management or any supervisory board invovled.
      5. file reports with any relevant bureau’s and departments..

      if thats legal to say you must work deathly sick with people in comprimised health situations then bring on the obama care and make the employers pay for it !
      this isnt medival england the employee’s are the might and brains of the fodder for their money machines without us there is no movies to rent or food thats horrendously and suicidely bad for a person to supposedly ingest or vegitate out into

  21. when I worked restaurant and retail jobs, that’s how it was.
    And good luck going to a doctor! I was making 8.25 an hour, no health insurance, doctors office visits hovered around 100 bucks (+/- a little depending on clinic but nothing under 85 that I could find).

    What really cracked me up/pissed me off; I’m at a job with health insurance and PTO now. I got the flu, so I went in to the doctor note cause I was outg for 2-3 days.
    The nurse had the flu. She looked horrible. I asked and she said she couldn’t take time off right then because there was a moratorium! I found a new doctor.

    • I have health insurance but cant afford the co pay to go to the dr. I also have sick time but if i call in sick its unexcused until there is a dr note in the small town i live in during flu season good luck trying to get into the dr for a good week by then your better. I you have sick and/or personal time whats the point of using it if your gonna be unexcused when you use it then if you do that 3 times in a quarter FIRED! ya just cant win

  22. I have a friend who works at Burger King. The employees are constantly sick, getting each other sick and I am sure making most of our relatively small town ill because their policies are ridiculous. They are terminated if they call out sick even one day without bringing a doctors note the next day! Seriously, most of the employees are broke and poor and have small children and on miniumum wage obviously cannot afford doctor visits everytime they are ill!

  23. It does not matter if you have sick days or not. Because even if the company offers paid sick days, they view those who call in sick as not dedicated employees. I broached the subject with my former employer ( as I had a lower immune system due to several surguries) and it was made clear that they wanted 24 notice on illness and that they could not force people to stay home that were sick. If you did call in without notice, it was counted against you and after 3 call ins without 24 notice most were terminated. How can you know on Friday that you or a child is going to be sick on Monday ?!?!?! Not to mention that they applauded people who did come to work sick !! YES they THANKED people for coming to work when they did not feel well, as they were showing more commitment to the company!!!! Then when others were made ill by those who came to work and made them sick, you were obligated to come in and spread the illness. Otherwise you put your career in jeopardy. When are companies going to learn that we offer more loyalty and commitment to companies that care about us. For those who manage any company that claims that we ” are all a big family ” please treat us as such. And don’t be suprised when the lip service you give us is given right back to you.

  24. I am currently unemployed, but the last company I worked full time for had one of the more generous benefit and sick leave/vacation policies I’ve ever seen. I became very ill from standing in cold pouring raing waiting for a bus, and had to take a day off. NO way could I have made i through the day without spending half of it in the rest room. But I have been in situations when I could not take days off to be sick. I worked for another company that had fairly generous benefits, but the sick pay did not kick in til your second day sick. Therefore if you only needed one day you would not be paid. But we did have health insurance, so doctor visits were an option.

    The biggest issue to me is why don’t companies consider the damage from infecting other workers as well as customers. And why don’t more of them consider the importance of prevention? You want to potentially lose business because you’re too cheap or bitchy to let a worker take some time off when needed? You want to fire a sick worker and spend money and time replacing them? You want your whole office/store sick and infecting your customers and vendors? What kind of sense does this make? None.

  25. I can take off, but no one has the time to do my work (we’ve had a skeleton staff for years), so when I get back, my desk is covered. I end up going in early, skipping lunch and staying late. With those long hours, I’m sick again. I would never go in if I was running a fever, but I can’t take off just because I don’t “feel good”. I just have to load up on vitamins and then hang in there until the weekend.

  26. I worked retail and even with a doc excuse they wanted you to work. I was told my doc would write me an excuse, what else could I have taken out, this one was after gall bladder surgery. No one could change schedules with me as I was the only one did the position I held.

    I worked one year with the flu and just asked to go home at closing. The manager refused and actually made me stay an extra 30 min. I wished the flu on him. He got it and was out a week. I missed 3 days.

    This was not unusual in my store. I even worked on a broken foot for 5 hrs before I gave up and went to the hospital. I couldn’t walk for 8 weeks. I made it worse.

    So much for HEPA, they ask why you can’t work. So much for doc excuse, they think the doc will lie for you, and so much for trading shifts, no one can do your job.

  27. Been there, done that. The worst is if your boss proudly boasts they never have to use sick days and no one else should be entitled to them either. Oh, the exception is when (s)he goes out for back surgery because (s)he won’t give up golfing!

    I wonder if an employer forced you to work and it turned out you had a highly communicable disease like measles or TB, would they be in trouble?

  28. Yea,lets vote Republican. Then nobody gets sick days.
    All the bastards whant to do is costing the company money.How dare cutting into theCEO”s Bonus.The houses,boats and cars cost a lot of money

  29. Who can afford or take the time to go to the doctor? You go when you are REALLY sick.
    Companies and government don’t care if you are healthy, sick, or dead. You better come to work and sometimes they will even fuss if you have a doctor’s note. Some doctors now days don’t even want to give a note due to “legal issues”.
    Blame the environment of greed we live in.

  30. I’ll tell you why…at my work we get a $1200 bonus if we can make it through the school year without needing a sub. Incentive for anyone, especially in these tough times, to go to work carrying a barf bag and wearing Depends.

  31. I’m a nurse at a hospital. My last 3 shifts I worked while everyone around me was convinced I had appendicitis. They tried to drag me to the ER, but I don’t have any call-ins left. Nurses work sick way more than people realize.

  32. The simple fact is that workers are afraid to call in sick and, as long as they feel they have no choice, they will continue to work while ill.

    Example:
    I had a previous employer that listed the right to take off one unpaid sick day at a time at the top of the list of benefits. Other “benefits” included one 10 minute bathroom break per shift and the right to keep up to eight ounces of water as long as it was out of the sight of customers. If an employee missed more than one shift, that employee was required to provide a doctor’s note upon his or her return or face immediate dismissal. Since there was no health insurance offered, few people could afford to see a doctor, meaning that one’s only choices were to A) Work sick or B) Find a new job. Since a terrible job is better than no job, most chose the former, myself included.

    It’s a terrible situation that people shouldn’t be forced to endure, but I honestly don’t see any sign of it changing any time soon.

  33. Working sick represents our culture. You come in cause you can’t afford to miss a day of pay, you’ll get fired, your boss expects it and there are too many reprecussions.
    You call in sick and you get chided, “Wish I could call in sick, poor Bobby got the sniffles?” Your debilitated state belittled, your thoughtfulness besmirtched with ridicule, etc.
    Once I came in sick, when my wife begged me not to go in. I said to her, “What? And forgo the opportunity to sicken those bastards who probably made me sick this time and spare the poor bastardios that have sickened me year after year after year? Spare those thoughtless pukes? No way, I’m going in!” And some of those guys through the years were so sick, sneezing, snotting, coughing, hacking up goobers etc.
    Yeah, this is a sick country.
    I recently went to a month long school where I came down with a cold the 2nd day. Until that plague was over in three weeks I counted 11 out of 18 sick, some worse than others, and some really bad, loss of voice, deep chest rumbling, coughing, mega-snotting, rheumy eyes, faucet noses, and general debilitation. We were all sick, and suffer we did, and no one missed a class, too scared to dare miss a class. No amends were made, there was no room for compromise, no plan to help the infirmed so suffer we did. Those who did not get sick held their heads high as if they were the impunable, the hale and stalwart bastions of health and fortuity.
    This is a sick country my friend, call in sick? Are you out of your mind?

  34. Your day off is your sick day. get sick then and there will be no problem with work. Just be sure to schedule that in.
    I’m being faticious. but that seemed to be the unwritten rule at the draconian policy making place I worked at.

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  37. Starbucks makes their employees work while sick. From managerial memo: “any call outs, for any reason will result in a formal write up [and reduced hours]”

    Enjoy your double tall latte with a side of influenza.

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