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On Tuesday the Centers for Disease Control released its new toolkit, Preparing for the Flu: A Communication Toolkit for Businesses and Employers, which includes recommendations from the CDC, and a letter cosigned by the Secretaries of Commerce, Health and Human Services, and Labor.

Their advice? Plan ahead and "encourage sick workers to stay home without penalty." You'd think this would go without saying, right? What employer would want someone with the swine flu to show up at work?

As it turns out, lots of them.

Today, nearly 1/2 of the workforce doesn't have paid sick days. And, to make matters worse, the people who are most likely to interact with the public, like restaurant employees, hotel staff, and home health providers are the least likely to have paid sick days (roughly 74% in these industries have no paid sick days at all). When illness strikes, people without paid sick days have a tough choice: go to work sick and put their own health and their coworkers at risk, or stay home to recover and lose pay -- and maybe even their jobs.

The CDC does right to tell employers that by not having paid sick days, they are putting both their businesses and public health at risk. Commerce Secretary Locke says it himself: "If an employee stays home sick, it's not only the best thing for that employee's health, but also his co-workers and the productivity of the company."

But while educating the public that they should stay home if they get sick is important, education alone isn’t enough. The CDC and the Secretaries of Commerce, Health and Human Services, and Labor should publicly support the Healthy Families Act (H.R.2460/S.1152). This bill, introduced in the House by Rep. Rosa DeLauro and in the Senate by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, simply ensures that employers allow all workers to earn a minimum of 7 paid sick days per year.

Without a law in place that sets a standard for earning paid sick days, we will never achieve the kind of economic and public health safety net that we need to combat outbreaks like the H1N1 virus. We've encountered flu pandemics before, and we certainly will again, but businesses have not, on their own, adopted paid sick days policies despite the clear case for their benefit to businesses and the public alike.

It's not rocket science. The simple standard proposed by the Healthy Families Act is necessary for addressing this, and future, public health and economic needs. It's time for our leaders to speak out, and help bring our laws up to speed with common-sense public health practices.

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