Paying People to Stay Home When They’re Sick Results in Fewer People Getting Sick

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Here’s a revolutionary thought: Letting people stay home when they’re sick without docking their pay could help curb the spread of diseases. Specifically, a new paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the flu rate “decreases significantly” when employees are given paid sick days.

Many people in the United States don’t have paid sick leave (or paid family leave, for that matter); the authors say half of American works don’t have paid sick days. Unsurprisingly, it’s lower-income workers who have it the worst: About 84 percent of the highest-earning quarter of private-sector employees have paid sick days compared to just 31 percent of the lowest-earning quarter of workers, per 2015 Labor Department data.

But some cities and states have required employers to offer sick leave. So the authors of the NBER study compared regions with paid sick leave to Google Flu data from 2003 to 2015 and estimated that paid leave helped prevent 100 cases of “influenza-like disease” each week for every 100,000 people.

When extrapolated to population level, that’s a 6 percent decrease in flu cases, which they said could be attributed to a reduction in “contagious presenteeism,” or when people go to work sick and infect co-workers and customers. (If you already have paid sick leave and you do this, you are a vile person. Also, get a damn flu shot.)

Six percent may not sound like much but it’s worth repeating that the flu still kills thousands of people in this country every year. Estimates vary since the flu isn’t a disease that states have to report to the government, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the annual range is anywhere from 3,000 to 49,000 people. True, paid sick leave can also result in “noncontagious absenteeism,” a.k.a. playing hooky, but that doesn’t kill tens of thousands of people a year.