The Sick Leave Dilemma

When it comes to communicable diseases, Americans seem to catch everything except a break. For nearly four years we struggled to prevent and deal with COVID-19, and just as we thought we had the deadly virus under control, the CDC reports that nearly 1 in 5 Americans who had COVID now struggle with chronic “Long COVID” symptoms. To make matters worse, the good old-fashioned flu and its cousin RSV have entered 2024 with a vengeance. In fact, according to the CDC, 38 states are dealing with either a high or very high level of respiratory illness. Nationwide there have been more than 7,000 deaths this flu season, including 266 here in North Carolina (source: NCHHS). And, even folks with less serious respiratory illnesses are experiencing recovery times of several weeks. It’s enough to make you want to call in sick, but if you do, don’t count on receiving a paycheck.

According to a report by, the United States is one of only four nations that do NOT guarantee paid sick leave. The other three are India, South Korea, and Somalia.

It sounds like a sick joke, but here in the good old U.S.A., only “unpaid” sick leave is guaranteed. That’s the bad news. The good news is that according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 77% of private industry employees have access to a limited amount of paid sick leave. The problem is that we’re not using sick leave as we should, or as we used to.

In the not-so-olden times, we stayed home from work if we had a bad cold or the flu. Not anymore. According to the CDC, 89% of all U.S. employees work while sick. There are a number of reasons for this phenomenon. For one, some folks who have access to paid sick leave don’t want to use it all up during early winter, just in case they might need time off later in the year. Still, others can’t afford to take “unpaid” sick leave at any time. Another reason is that the pandemic changed the dynamic of calling in sick and staying home from work.

When COVID was raging and our governor ordered people to shelter at home, most employers welcomed remote work as a way of keeping their business afloat. And even if employees contracted a mild case of COVID, which only required rest at home, then they could still keep up with their work, and communicate via Zoom. But there’s a fly in the ointment. A lot of people still work at home, either full or part-time, and as the Greensboro News & Record’s LZ Granderson observed, “It’s harder for folks who work remotely to justify using a sick day…how do you tell your supervisor you can’t work from home while ill, when we all just saw civilization work through a global pandemic?”

Fortunately, there is a simple way to manage this balancing act, and that is to avoid getting sick in the first place. I know that sounds idiotic, but folks who have limited or no paid leave can simply do what we were all asked to do during the pandemic: wear a mask around large crowds, and practice social distancing. It’s easy to do and produces no side effects. As someone who catches colds and flu easily, I can tell you from personal experience that while wearing a mask and social distancing during the pandemic, I wasn’t sick once, nor did I miss a single day of work.

No doubt sick leave (especially paid leave) is a good thing to have in your back pocket if you need it, but a little bit of caution and common sense can keep the doctor away altogether. Not long ago, a number of medical and media pundits predicted that once the pandemic had subsided, we’d have to adjust to a “new normal.” Perhaps having to protect ourselves on a daily basis is what they meant.


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