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Nearly 8 Million H1N1-Infected Workers Attended Work While Sick, Report Says

ShareSome 7.8 million workers who were infected with the H1N1 influenza virus between September and November 2009 worked while sick, despite official warnings to stay home and avoid infecting others, according to a report released by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a Washington, D.C., think tank. (Occupational Safety and Health Daily)

In the report Sick at Work: Infected Employees in the Workplace During the H1N1 Pandemic, Robert Drago of Pennsylvania State University and Kevin Miller of IWPR compared data on H1N1 cases from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with data on work missed due to illness from the current population survey, conducted monthly by the Census Bureau for the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Drago and Miller also compared rates of illness among public sector workers, whom they said had more access to paid sick leave, with those of workers in the private sector, many of whom they said lack paid sick time. Public sector workers, or those employed by federal, state, and local governments, were more likely to stay home when infected with H1N1, the authors argued.

The data suggest that only two-thirds of private sector employees took time away from work when infected with H1N1, despite advice to stay home. Workers without paid sick days must choose whether to go to work sick or lose pay, a choice that many can’t afford to make, Miller said in a statement.

Nearly Nine in 10 Public Workers Have Paid Sick Leave

The report said that BLS data show that while 89 percent of government employees have paid sick leave, only two of five private sector workers have it.

According to CDC data, the report said, some 44,450,708 cases of H1N1 flu were diagnosed between Aug. 30 and Dec. 5 of last year, with the number of cases rising to a peak of more than 6 million in late October. Data on H1N1 cases are reported weekly by CDC, the authors said.

Meanwhile, the authors examined data from the reference weeks, or the weeks for which data are collected, of the current population survey for September, October, and November, and compared them to data on H1N1 cases in those same weeks. Drago and Miller looked at unadjusted data on workers who reported that they usually worked full time but had not worked during the reference week due to illness.

The report said that in September, 1.87 percent of all workers were absent due to illness during the reference week. The share of employees who missed work due to illness rose to 3.17 percent in October, and then declined slightly to 2.82 percent in November, the report said.

The absence proportion indeed seems to show a response to the [H1N1] pandemic, rising by over 1 full percentage point between September and October of 2009 before declining by approximately 0.3 percent in November, the report said.

Private Sector Employees Seen Pressured to Work

The authors also broke down the data according to whether workers who reported missing work because of illness were employed in the public or private sector.

The pandemic appears to have affected employees in both sectors, increasing their absence rates between September and October of 2009, the report said. However, the data also suggest that private sector employees may feel particularly pressured by their employers (and high rates of unemployment) to attend work, regardless of illness.

According to the report, the share of workers who were absent due to illness in September, October, and November was higher for workers in the public sector than those in the private sector. In September, for example, the authors said that 1.83 percent of private-sector workers missed work due to illness, compared with 2.27 percent of government employees.

Between September and October, the report said, the rate of absence due to illness for private sector workers rose 66 percent, from 1.83 percent to 3.04 percent. At the same time, the rate of absence for public-sector workers posted a much greater increase, of 84 percent, from 2.27 percent to 4.18 percent.

Given that most public sector employees have job-protected paid sick days, it makes sense that they would be more likely than workers in the private sector to stay at home when infected with H1N1, the report said.

Using statistical regression techniques to correct for the fact that CDC data count all cases of H1N1, not just those among adults who are employed, the authors provided figures on the number of workers who had the virus, as well as how many of those workers went to work and how many missed work.

The authors found that there were some 25,496,749 workers infected with H1N1 in September through November. Of those, 7,751,012 workers attended work, while 17,745,738 infected employees stayed home.

Another 7 Million People May Have Been Affected

Using previous research as a guide, the authors also said that because of the highly contagious nature of H1N1, it is likely that those workers who were infected with the virus and attended work could have infected an additional 7 million employees.

The report concluded that absent paid sick days legislation in the United States, many private sector employees faced little choice and attended work while sick, thereby infecting others. | Full report

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