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Call in sick or work?

It's a tough question for many workers, and often there is no clear-cut answer. The wide range of sick leave policies also complicates things.

©Washington Post
March 17, 2002


Sharon Leonard knows all about sniffles and sneezes. But it's not her office that Leonard considers the weak link in her fight to avoid the many colds she contracts. She has two daughters: one, 3; the other, 18 months. Her weak link is the preschool. "When Katie gets sick, she gives it to Elizabeth. And then I get it," Leonard said between coughing fits. This happened to be one of those times.

So with the younger girl in the process of building up her immune system, Leonard has found her own a bit weakened. She knows that if she stayed away from her job at the Human Resource Certification Institute in Alexandria, Va., every time she had a cold, she wouldn't be there half the year.

"I think my tolerance for what is 'sick' went up," she said, when she became a mom. Her new measure: If she can get out of bed, she goes to work. That's in part because she wants to save her sick days for staying home with the girls when they're sick.

But what about exposing her co-workers?

During cold and flu season, the question -- whether to stay home to avoid making co-workers sick or go in for fear we'll fall behind or lose precious leave time -- looms as heavy as the haze of a head cold.

Some bosses get annoyed at workers who stay home at the first sneeze. Others don't want other employees exposed to a malady that could leave a department with a skeleton staff.

And then there are those who assume that work can't go on without their presence, stuffed up and snorting into tissues or not. If someone told all nonessential employees to stay home, most offices would remain full.

That's where Jill Shrensky fits in. Not that she's an egomaniac, but she certainly feels a sense of duty, so much so that she is known at the commercial real estate company CarrAmerica as the one who comes to work. She admits that it got to the point late last year where her doctor ordered her to stay home because she had run herself down so much.

"It all stems from growing up and listening to a personal work ethic from my parents. You work regardless. You go to school no matter what," Shrensky said.

And so she goes, much to the dismay of co-workers who have told her from time to time to just go home. Even if her two children, now teenagers, are sick, she tries to split the at-home time with her husband so neither of them has to take an entire day off.

"I do come in here a lot of times when I shouldn't, but I'd feel guilty if I didn't," she said.

Another complication is a change in the way many employers dole out days off.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, the proportion of companies that provided general paid time off, rather than separate amounts of vacation time and sick leave, jumped from 12 percent in 2000 to 62 percent in 2001. That is based on a benefits survey sent out annually to more than 750 human resources professionals.

No one seems to understand why there was such an immense increase, other than that the practice is catching on. There are several strong reasons that push organizations to offer leave in one big lump. First, it helps employers deal with those who abuse sick leave, and it can cut back on the cost of absenteeism.

On the employees' side, it can give them better control over leave (unless they do get pretty darn sick), and they could get more vacation time than they had when leave time was split up.

But that last reason goes right back to pushing sick folks into the office when maybe they shouldn't be there: Take a sick day and it feels as though you've used a vacation day.

If a company used to offer 12 days of paid vacation and five days of paid sick leave annually but now gives 17 days of general paid leave, there's a major incentive to come to work. Those days spent nursing a cold could instead be spent on the beach.

Susan Randall, a manager with Inova HealthSource and director of the Fight the Flu and Corporate Wellness campaigns, understands the conflict but says people need to be encouraged to stay home and think of their colleagues.

Brian Sansoni, spokesman at the Soap and Detergent Association in Washington, said his organization stresses the need for employees to be careful when they come to work with a cold or flu. Washing hands is the No. 1 way to prevent passing illness to others.

"It's no fun to feel sick, and the workplace acts like an incubator," he said.

A survey released by the association in November points out just that.

"While most people can employ good cleaning habits, antibacterial products and disinfectants to fight germs at home, they have much less control over their work environment," Nancy Bock, the association's director of consumer affairs, said in a statement released after the cleaning survey.

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