Most Americans say they go to work when they're sick, and the lower-paying a job is, the less likely an ailing employee will take sick leave, a new poll found.
The problem is especially prevalent in the healthcare and food industries, where employees interact with people directly or handle food, according to the poll done by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
"It's one of the biggest food safety problems that there is, and we've known about it forever," the Minnesota Department of Health's Kirk Smith told NPR. Smith is in charge of foodborne outbreak investigations in the state.
The poll found that 65 percent of people working in low-paying jobs routinely go to work sick, while 55 percent of their counterparts in average-paying jobs head to work even if they're suffering from the flu or other infections. People with the highest-paying jobs are the least likely to show up to work if they're sick, the survey found, with 52 percent saying they stay home when they're ill.
"It's definitely the norm to go into work sick. That's what I and most of my co-workers usually do," bartender Anthony Peeples told NPR.
Peeples, who previously worked at an Olive Garden, said the practice is common among non-salaried employees because they don't get paid sick leave.
"I don't think anybody really wants to go out there and get people sick or let alone work when they're miserable, but you have to," Peeples said. "Or else you're not going to be able to pay your electricity or water or your rent."
One in five food service workers admitted going to work while they were so ill they were vomiting and had diarrhea, according to a Centers for Disease Control study. As Smith explained to NPR, workers infected with norovirus -- one of the most common viral infections -- can infect others with minimal contact, and the virus is easily transmitted by incidental contact with food, water, and surfaces.
Norovirus, which can sideline the infected for three or more days, "is by far the most common food-borne illness," Smith said. That's because people infected with norovirus carry billions of virus particles, he said, while it only takes about 20 particles to infect another person.
"And so it just takes microcontamination of your hands," Smith said, "if you don't do a perfect job washing, to be able to contaminate food with enough of the virus to infect lots and lots of people."
The NPR study is consistent with past surveys on the work habits of Americans, including a 2012 poll sponsored by Staples that said 90 percent of American employees went to work sick that year. Likewise, a study by the public health organization NSF International found that 20 percent of employees never call out sick.
“People want to make sure they’re not forgotten, and they want to show they’re committed to the cause,” workplace expert Daryl Pigat told the New York Post. “To some, showing up to work every day translates to job security.”
Pigat said managers need to lead if they want to change the corporate culture in which taking a sick day is interpreted as a failure.
Aron Susman, co-founder of a New York City real estate start-up where employees work in close proximity, says he sends employees home if they're sick.
“Asking people to work when they’re sick isn’t moral,” Sussman told the Post. “But neither is coming into the office and infecting everyone else.”