Report: In Tough Job Market, Workers Reluctant to Take Sick Leave

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Eileen Appelbaum
Economic Intelligence (U.S. News & World Report), August 29, 2012

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The recession may have ended in June 2009, but for the 12.9 million workers who were laid off in the past three years, times have been tough. About half these (6.1 million people) were experienced workers who had worked for their employer for 3 or more years when they were let go. A report from the U.S. Department of Labor released this week documents just how difficult it has been for these workers, despite their long tenure with their former employer, to find new jobs and suggests why those still on the job are reluctant to take time they need when they're sick.

The Department of Labor reports that just over half (56 percent) of workers displaced from long-tenure jobs were employed in January 2012. More than a quarter, 26.7 percent, of these workers were still unemployed and almost a fifth, 17.4 percent, had dropped out of the labor force. Even among those who found employment, many continue to face hard times. Well over half of the full-time workers who found new jobs took a cut in pay; a third accepted pay cuts of 20 percent or more.

While laid-off workers are all struggling in today's labor market, the situation for women laid off from a job they held for at least three years has been even worse than for men. These data confirm again that the strongest job gains during the recovery have been in male-dominated industries. Hiring has been especially weak in office and administrative support occupations and in service occupations, where women are the predominant work forces.

Among long-tenured workers, men and women were equally likely to be laid off because their plant or company closed down. But men were much more likely than women to lose their jobs because of insufficient work (43.2 percent of men vs. 34.8 percent of women), while women were much more likely to be let go because their job or shift was abolished (34.8 percent of women vs. 25.7 percent of men).

The poor job market and the difficulty that even experienced employees face finding a new job contributes to workers' reluctance to take time off from work for their own illness or to care for a seriously ill family member. A 2010 survey of employee experiences with California's paid family leave program found that among workers who knew about the program and needed family leave but did not take it, a quarter (24 percent) feared they would lose their job; 37 percent were concerned about retribution at work and/or job loss. Numerous studies document the incidence of presenteeism and the costs to business when workers, afraid or unable to take time off, come to work sick. Presenteeism is more costly to businesses than absenteeism.

Providing workers with job-protected leave so they can care for themselves and for ill family members increases the welfare of working families, improves public health, and saves businesses money. Such leaves are always important, but never more so than when poor labor market conditions increase workers' reluctance to stay home when sick.


Eileen Appelbaum is a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and the co-author of 'Leaves That Pay: Employer and Worker Experiences With Paid Family Leave in California.'