August 19, 2014

Working While Sick

Man Is Sneezing With Toilet PaperOver the weekend I somehow caught a cold (at least that’s what I self-diagnosed). I’m talking sore, scratchy throat, ear pain and pressure, runny nose—you get my drift.

I was hoping Monday morning would bring relief, after all, Monday means back to work and like so many other people, I can’t afford to be sick.

Yet, I awoke Monday feeling worse than the day before. Summertime colds are worse, but having to work while enduring one is torture.

Who else has found him/herself in a similar scenario? You unexpectedly caught a cold, the flu or are just downright feeling ill and you aren’t sure what the problem is. But you don’t want to call off work because 1) you need the money 2) you don’t have any more sick days to use and/or 3) you’re like me and recently took a week off for vacation so now is not the best time to call in sick.

Sadly, many Americans find themselves in these types of dilemmas each day. According to the article, “Way Too Many Americans Go To Work While Sick: Survey,” more than one in four American workers said they show up to work while ill, even though they could sicken their colleagues.

The data came from a poll conducted by Michigan-based, public-health testing group, NSF International. According to the pool results, a little more than one-third of American workers surveyed either always work when sick or stay home only if a doctor says so. And men (33%) are nearly twice as likely as women (17%) to always go to work despite being ill.

According to the poll, the top four reasons Americans go to work while sick include:

  • Too many deadlines or work (42 percent)
  • Can’t afford to be sick (37 percent)
  • Boss expects me to work sick (25 percent)
  • Don’t trust anyone to do my job (16 percent)

I’m certain many of our excuses for punching in on the clock while being ill also fall into those four areas. And the second reason—cannot afford to be sick—especially holds true for those who don’t work in an office but in areas that affect us all—the food service industry.

A recent CNN Money article, “These food workers have to work while sick – a risk to all of us,” explains that when becoming ill, staying home is not an option for food industry workers. The article says that 70 percent of food service workers “are low wage employees with no paid sick days.”

The health agency last month issued a bulletin that said the worst food-borne illnesses originated from contaminated food handled by sick workers.

It includes norovirus, the nasty stomach bug that is notorious for causing vomiting and diarrhea in cruise ship passengers. The virus also causes 20 million Americans in land to get sick every year. And infected food industry workers cause 70% of the cases. (bold emphasis added)

The CNN story gives the example of Martin Ayala, a clerk in the meat department of a large Los Angeles supermarket.

The article reads:

For Ayala, working sick is a way of life. The Mexican immigrant, who has been in the United States for 25 years, admits that he’s unintentionally sneezed and coughed on food and has seen his co-workers do the same even while sick.

But with an hourly wage of $11.36 with which he supports a family, he says he can’t afford to miss a day.

If Martin were to miss work, the story explains, he could fall behind on his rent and end up having to visit a food bank.

Now, most of us who would force ourselves into work despite feeling ill would gasp at the idea of a McDonald’s or Chic fil A worker doing the same. We are just potentially infecting other human beings with our germs; these types of workers are potentially infecting the very food that so many of us consume. It’s not the same, right?

Well, I say wrong. The issue is not so much with who can cause the greater harm by showing up to work sick (an office worker versus a fast-food worker) but that our society is so programmed to treat our health and well being so casually.

We are so dependent on money to survive, so we need a source of money, i.e. our jobs. And anything threatening to affect this source—even our own health—must be taken care of.

It’s an unfortunate mindset, but one many of the “99 percent” of us have grown accustomed to. We work so hard for a paycheck so we can live, but in essence, risk our health for the paycheck, which can ultimately defeat our initial purpose of living. The way we’ve been programmed to think when it comes to work and health is kind of ironic.

Make no mistake though; I’m one of those workers who are just as guilty. I mean, today is Monday as I write this, i.e. as I continue to work—with a box of Kleenex to my left and a glass of Orange juice and cough syrup on my right.

Read more in Well Being

Marks’ stories have also been published in a variety of newspaper, magazine and online formats including The Arizona Republic, The Daily Herald, Arizona Foothills Magazine and various classroom magazines of Scholastic Inc. Service is her passion, writing is her platform and uplifting and inspiring the community is her purpose. Marks received a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Mass Communication from Arizona State University.
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