Being Sick is a Privilege

I got sick this week. It wasn’t the flu (I was tested). It was just a random viral infection. But that sucker knocked me out! I was in bed for three days. And I was coughing, sneezing, wheezing, blowing ungodly amounts of gunk out of my nose and just generally under the weather for over a week. And do you know what I learned from this ordeal? I learned that being sick is a privilege.

Being Sick is a Privilege

Yes, it sucks to be sick. But I was able to leave work on Friday without any questions. I was able to call off on Monday and Tuesday without any argument. On Tuesday, I went to the urgent care where I paid zero dollars to see a doctor because of my employee sponsored insurance plan. I also got a note excusing me from work until Friday. I made an attempt to go to work on Friday, I was feeling much better but still a bit fuzzy. My boss called and asked me what I was doing. He said go home – anything I could accomplish on Friday I could do just as easily on Monday.

"Being sick is a privilege"
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I am so thankful to have a job that gives me the privilege of actually being sick. I could stay home, rest, recover, and not spread my germs to the rest of the team without any problems. In addition, I could go to a doctor, get tested for flu, and get some serious cough reduction medicine that vastly improved my ability to sleep for less than ten bucks because I’m fortunate enough to have great medical coverage. But it also got me thinking – how many Americans don’t have that luxury?

The Inability of Most Americans to Get Sick

Being sick is a privilege because most Americans can’t afford it. The United States is one of only two of the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that doesn’t mandate some type of paid time off for its workers. Many companies do offer paid time off as a benefit, but unfortunately, this means the lowest paid workers, the ones who need it most, are less likely to have it. The Bureau of Labor Statistics published a study showing that only 51% of the workers in the bottom 25 percentile of wages have access to paid time off for sick leave.

The news isn’t that great for the people that do have sick leave. Most Americans, about 50%, earn between 5 and 9 sick days per year. I was out with my cold for a week. If I only earned five days a year, I wouldn’t be able to get sick any more all year. That also means I wouldn’t be able to take time off to see a doctor or take care of a sick family member. And twenty five percent of Americans who have access to paid sick leave have even less than that.

I’m fortunate enough to get 12 sick days per year, and they never expire. I’ve built up a nice buffer of four weeks of sick leave, so I know I can get sick or make a doctor’s appointment whenever I need to. That puts me in with only 25% of workers who have ten or more days of paid sick leave. 

One Paid Time Off Pool

Another thing companies do to insidiously limit their employees time off is offer a combined pool of paid time off. They sell this by telling their employees that they have “flexibility” in how they use their leave, but in my opinion it’s just a way to prevent them from taking time off and still report that they offer paid sick leave and vacation time.


Here’s how these policies work. A company offers a set amount of paid time off per year, let’s say ten days. You, as the employee, can use that paid time off for whatever you want. Sounds like a great deal, doesn’t it? So, you plan a two-week vacation to see your family for the holidays, but then you get the flu. Now you don’t have enough paid time off to cover both. What do you do?

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any statistics on whether most companies who offered “flexible” paid time off policies actually gave enough time off to give their employees the privilege of being sick. I would think that a company would have to offer about 20 days total to ensure that a sickness doesn’t destroy vacation plans – or that an employee wouldn’t choose to come to work sick in order to prevent canceling a vacation.

Going to Work Sick

And that brings us to one of the biggest reasons why everyone should lobby for paid sick time off. What do you think people do when they don’t have the privilege of being sick? When they can’t stay home with the flu?

They go to work sick. People who should be home in bed get themselves up and go to work because they can’t afford not to. I can’t imagine how I would have made it though work during those first few days of my illness. Think about how dangerous it is to have people with headaches and head colds commuting to and from work. Imagine how many mistakes these people are making on the job because they can’t concentrate. Consider how many other people are getting sick because contagious people can’t afford to miss work.

Remember those 50% of low wage workers that don’t have any paid sick leave? What industries do you think they work in? If you guessed retail and food service, you’d probably be right – those tend to be the lowest paid sectors. That means the people who are making your food and bringing it to you are the people that aren’t allowed to be sick. The people who are bagging your groceries and handling your money are the ones who can’t afford to stay home. Being sick is privilege that these workers can’t afford, and in the end we all end up paying.


Sending Kids to School Sick

Being sick is a privilege for the children of these workers as well. Many people have to send their children to school with colds because they can’t afford to take a day off to take care of the sick kids. So now, we have a sick child spreading germs to other children, and we have a parent going to work and spreading their child’s illness to unsuspecting customers. All because a business can’t be bothered to offer employees the basic human dignity of being sick.

Being Sick Shouldn’t be a Privilege

I think we can do way better than this in the richest country in the world. Being sick shouldn’t be a privilege, it’s something that every single person on the planet goes through. People in any occupation should be allowed the basic human dignity of staying home with a flu, or to take care of sick children. We can do better for our people.

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