The 2017-2018 influenza season has been a harsh one and it’s not over yet. The CDC classifies the prevalence of influenza as “widespread” in each of the 50 states. It’s been that way since the week of Jan 6.
In Texas where I reside, the State Department of Health Services reports there have been 2,355 pneumonia and influenza deaths between October 1, 2017 and January 24, 2018. All of the state’s big cities—Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Fort Worth—have been hard hit. In Austin, the number of people seeking medical care for influenza “exploded” during the third week of January. That was the term used by the chief medical officer of a major healthcare provider network that serves Austin and its surrounding counties. The headline in today’s edition of my local paper, Hill County Record, reads
“Flu cases exploding across Hays County.”
In the midst of the “explosion,” business associations in the City of Austin are opposing an intervention that would thwart influenza’s spread in the future: earned sick leave.
The Texas Restaurant Association (TRA) is calling on its members to act swiftly and defeat a just proposed sick leave ordinance by three Austin city council members. No city in Texas requires employers to provide paid sick leave. TRA would like to keep it that way.
The draft ordinance in Austin would require all employers in the city to allow employees to earn one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked. More than 40 jurisdictions, including nine states, have laws requiring some form a paid leave. The proposal for Austin has been in the works for months, but this year’s flu season amplifies the need. An analysis by the community group Work Strong Austin estimates that 223,000 Austin workers do not have sick leave.
The TRA calls sick leave requirements “onerous.” They insist the proposed Austin ordinance “is poised to have a potentially devastating impact on business, particularly the restaurant industry.” More damaging to the restaurant industry would be the public becoming aware of the following:
- A national survey of 4,300 restaurant workers revealed that 88 percent did not have paid sick leave. In addition, 63 percent admitted they cooked and served food at work while they were sick.
- A survey of 550 restaurant workers in Houston found 96 percent lacked paid sick days and 74 percent prepared food at work while sick. These employees are loyal. Nearly 60 percent of the respondents had four years or more of experience with their current employer.
In the wake of this year’s flu season, the Texas Restaurant Association should have a hard time defending those numbers.
Halting the spread of influenza was one of the reasons that the American Public Health Association (APHA) adopted in 2013 a policy statement in support of paid sick leave and family leave. The policy specifically notes:
“In the absence of federal legislation that fully addresses the problem of inadequate paid sick and family leave, APHA urges state and local governments to adopt laws, ordinances, or policies requiring employers to provide paid leave for employees who are new parents and to provide paid sick leave to employees to care for themselves, a family member, or a designated person with a familial-type relationship.”
In the years since the APHA policy was adopted, more research has been published on the benefits of paid leave policies. For example, an analysis by Hsuan and colleagues suggests an association between paid sick leave laws and reductions in foodborne illness. A paper by CDC researchers estimated an annual savings to employers of $0.63 to $1.88 billion from reduced absenteeism by preventing the spread of influenza-like illnesses because of paid sick leave. A study by DeRigne and colleagues found adults without paid sick leave were significantly less likely to receive preventive health services, including Pap tests, cholesterol checks, and fasting blood sugar checks.
Back in Texas, the Austin Chamber of Commerce announced its “contingent opposition” to the proposed paid sick leave ordinance. They want an independent analysis of the economic impact of the ordinance on businesses and more time to study the proposal. Their announcement came last week, around the same time that physicians began referring to the region’s influenza epidemic as an “explosion.”
Not only do these business groups have poor timing, they are on the wrong side of public health.