It started Sunday night.

I figured that since I had left the air conditioner on all night, along with the floor fan and the ceiling fan, my sore throat was because of the luxurious cold air. Given our recent heat wave, I just wanted to enjoy a little comfort that night.

It turned out to be a fever, and by Monday morning, the infection had taken hold. Slight chills, sore throat, a hoarse voice, and then, the cough. I hate the cough, that deep hack that hurts inside when you least expect it.

I went to work anyway, but most people would have stayed home. In fact, I tell my own patients to stay home.

It’s time for our leaders at the Hawaii State Capitol to require employers to provide sick leave. PF Bentley/Civil Beat/2014

But all too often, they can’t. Why? Because they don’t have any paid sick leave, and they can’t afford not to go to work.

Or they do have sick leave, but the first three days comes out of their vacation time, and then their sick leave kicks in. Or their work policy is that they have to show up sick, and then be sent home when their supervisor agrees that they shouldn’t be at work. But at that point they have already infected their colleagues, and that’s how infections spread in the workplace.

Why doesn’t Hawaii have mandated paid sick leave? Well, we are not alone, there is no federal mandate for paid sick leave, or any sick leave for that matter. According to the U.S. Department of Labor,  the Fair Labor Standards Act  states there is no requirement for any payment for time not worked, vacation, sick leave, or holidays

In fact, the U.S. is one of the only developed nations  that does not have any mandatory paid sick leave.

That doesn’t mean no one has leave, it just that it’s up to employers to develop their own policy for sick leave, vacation, and holiday pay, and it’s up to workers to accept it. Unfortunately, for many lower-wage workers, that means not getting anything at all. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than one in three workers does not receive paid sick leave, including 22 percent of full-time workers, and more than three-quarters of part-time workers.

That’s about to change. President Barak Obama declared that all federal contractors have to provide their employees with up to seven days of paid sick leave starting in 2017.

But where does that leave the rest of us?

Some jurisdictions have taken it upon themselves to pass provisions of the act. Since 2004, Connecticut, California and Massachusetts have mandated paid sick leave, along with certain cities: San Francisco, Washington, Seattle, Portland, New York, San Diego, Newark, Oakland and my hometown of Philadelphia. Workers in these locations are protected and have paid sick leave to take care of an illness for themselves or their families, at least up to five days a year, for some even longer.

Hawaii should be next.

Would you want a restaurant worker who has the flu preparing your food? Should those who work in child care or nursing homes be forced to work while sick, and then risk infecting those who are so vulnerable to complications from even the slightest cold or flu?

What if that was your child who got sick at day care, and you needed to stay home with him or her? For many folks taking a day off to care for a sick child results in a loss of pay, or even with pay, the threat of being put on attendance probation because of calling in sick for a medical illness that was unexpected, and unplanned.

Don’t even get me started on the threats that I have heard take place during the holidays! From Dec. 15 to Jan. 15, anyone who calls in sick where I work is facing stiff penalties if they don’t bring a doctor’s note or some proof of illness. This is very common in areas such as retail, where the holidays are the biggest sales days of the year, and having personnel is crucial.

I do understand that it takes reliable workers to show up to run a business in any industry. But as a doctor, I also know what it feels like to be sick, to want to take a few Tylenol, curl up in bed and get a few more hours’ sleep. After all, recent studies have shown that it’s often the lack of sleep that puts people at risk in the first place.

Hawaii needs to take the lead and provide the time off for those who really need it and mandate paid sick leave. People need time to get over an illness, and then they can come back to work more productive and less contagious. Most people are honest, and won’t abuse the system if it’s fair and available for all.

Sometimes the best way to get over a cold is to just get a good book to read, a box of tissues, and find a nice comfortable place to take a nap while letting the body recover. It happens quicker than you think if you take the time you need in the beginning. 

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