Debunking the Freedom Foundation’s Opposition to Paid Sick Leave: Presenteeism and Employer Costs

To limit the spread of disease in these times of worldwide pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control advises people wash their hands frequently for 20 seconds, avoid close contact with others, cover your coughs and sneezes, clean surfaces frequently, and stay home when sick. However, across the US, only 12 states – including Washington, Oregon, California – and Washington D.C. require employers to offer paid sick leave. As the public attempts to “flatten the curve” and slow the spread of the coronavirus, staying home when ill is not only crucial but lifesaving. Many workers across various industries, including frontline employees like grocery store workers do not have paid sick leave, meaning they either show up to work or go without pay. The anti-worker, billionaire-funded Freedom Foundation has adamantly opposed paid sick leave for years – going as far as to call paid sick leave a “cure worse than the disease.” In these times of mass illness, their opposition is more disturbing and, quite literally, more sickening than ever before.

The anti-union Freedom Foundation has long been loud and proud in their opposition to paid sick leave. By far, their two largest points of contention with the lifesaving workplace benefit are: 1.)  their belief that it does not prevent sick workers from coming to work (also known as ‘presenteeism’ – the downturn in productivity due to worker illness on the job) and 2.) the supposed policy’s undue burden on employers. As stated in their 2014 report on mandatory paid sick leave, the billionaire-funded Freedom Foundation said they don’t believe workplace illness is a “widespread problem,” nor do they believe workplace illness to be a serious public health risk:  “if advocates of mandatory paid sick leave are correct that workplace illness is a serious public health risk, establishing that a problem exists does not mean a particular policy will solve it.”

Debunking the myth of presenteeism

Presenteeism is defined as workers not functioning at full capacity due to being present at work while sick. It functions on the belief that workers, more often than not, show up to work when sick. This isn’t true – and the studies on this are endless.

A 2017 study from the academic journal PLOS One found that employees without paid sick leave were more likely to come to work sick than workers with paid sick leave. In fact, this study also finds that paid sick leave is associated with overall employee health: “those with PSD [paid sick days] had fewer injuries in the workplace than those without PSD. Those without PSD were more likely to delay or forgo seeking medical care for their own or a family member’s injury or illness, and were more likely to seek care in an emergency department than in a doctor’s office.”

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimated that an additional five million people contracted the H1N1 virus in 2009 because of the lack of workplace policies such as paid sick leave.

In fact, studies show that providing workers with paid sick leave actually decreases the spread of disease: A survey by the Public Welfare Foundation found that workers without paid sick leave were 1.5 times more likely to go to work while exhibiting symptoms of illness. This study also found that having access to paid sick leave was “very important” to 69% of workers.

Another study by the American Public Health Association found that providing workers with just two paid sick days reduced workplace infections by 39%.

It’s clear: paid sick leave slows the spread of flu-like disease and actually decreases the chance that workers will actually come to work while sick. Presenteeism is nothing more than a baseless talking point that the Freedom Foundation uses to perpetuate their anti-worker, anti-paid sick leave agenda.

Debunking the myth that paid sick leave puts undue burdens on employers 

The Freedom Foundation claims that offering employees with paid sick leave puts an undue economic burden on employers, saying: “Consumers are hit with higher prices. Employees are likely to see reductions in pay, hours or other benefits. And, despite these measures, some businesses will still face reduced profitability.” This, too, is not an accurate depiction of the relationship between paid sick leave and employers.

The United States Congress’s Joint Economic Committee found that offering paid leave actually improves productivity by “boosting morale and making it easier for businesses to retain skilled workers.” The report goes on to cite a survey done in California which found that “only a small portion (fewer than 10 percent) reported adverse effects on profitability, turnover and morale.”

Another study by the Urban Institute found that “in terms of profitability, majorities of employers across several cities report little to no impact on their bottom line.” The report continues:

“In New York, nearly 85 percent of employers reported that the new law did not affect their overall business costs, and less than 2 percent reported a decline in overall costs. Among the 14 percent of employer respondents reported an impact on costs, 9 percent reported a cost increase of less than 3 percent in their overall costs, 3 percent reported an increase of 3 percent or more.”

This study also found that providing workers with paid sick leave did not diminish workplace productivity, with 94% of employers in New York seeing no adverse effect.

A study from Center for American Progress finds that paid sick leave can actually retain quality workers, leading to less turnover – a process that can cost businesses anywhere from 16-200% of annual compensation. In fact, another report finds communities actually thrive when workers are offered paid sick leave: “Nearly two years after New York implemented its paid sick days law, the number of businesses grew, consumer prices fell, labor participation was the highest on record, and unemployment was at its lowest in six year.”

Here again, we see that the anti-union Freedom Foundation’s opposition to paid sick leave is baseless and cruel. Every part of their anti-worker agenda is merely an appeal to their billionaire funders – completely out of touch with the realities of real working people in the Pacific Northwest and across the country. In this time of pandemic and widespread illness, the Freedom Foundation’s opposition to paid sick leave is nauseating and unjustifiable.

More resources on the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak: CDC, California Department of Health, Oregon Health Authority, Washington State Department of Health, World Health Organization.