WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. employers who tell workers to stay home when they are sick will have to give them paid time off for up to five days under new federal legislation proposed on Tuesday.
The emergency law would cover pandemic H1N1 flu or any other infectious disease, said California Representative George Miller, a Democrat who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee and who introduced the bill.
“Sick workers advised to stay home by their employers shouldn’t have to choose between their livelihood, and their co-workers’ or customers’ health,” Miller said.
“This will not only protect employees, but it will save employers money by ensuring that sick employees don’t spread infection to co-workers and customers, and will relieve the financial burden on our health system swamped by those suffering from H1N1.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises employers to encourage sick workers to stay home so they do not spread H1N1. “But workers have been reporting that many of them are either afraid or cannot afford to take time off,” Miller told reporters in a telephone briefing.
Paid sick leave is not required by U.S. laws.
Miller said the committee would hold a hearing the week of November 16 and he would press to have a full vote as soon as possible.
Miller said at least 50 million American workers are not paid for time taken off sick, “many in lower-wage jobs that have direct contact with the public such as the food-service and hospitality industry, schools and health care fields.”
In a regular briefing, CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden said 31.8 million doses of flu vaccine have now become available — still far short of the minimum of 80 million to 100 million that had been projected for the first week of November.
This number includes vaccine already administered. Frieden said CDC hoped 10 million new doses will have been made available by the end of the week.
He said the pandemic may be having an unexpected side-effect — increasing demand for the seasonal influenza vaccine. “We think this year will be the highest ever uptake on seasonal flu vaccine,” Frieden said.
“We anticipate there being around 114 million doses of seasonal flu vaccine available through the market by the end of the year. It may be there is even greater demand than that by the end of the season.”
This includes healthcare workers, who are often reluctant to be vaccinated. In recent years, only around 38 to 40 percent of healthcare workers get flu vaccines, but that percentage may be higher this year, Frieden said.
As with the vaccine against H1N1 swine flu, distribution is slow and patchy for seasonal flu vaccine. “We continue to hear that people are unable to get the vaccine,” Frieden said.
The United States buys both seasonal and H1N1 vaccine from five makers — GlaxoSmithKline Plc, AstraZeneca Plc’s MedImmune unit, Novartis, Sanofi-Aventis and CSL Limited.
Some members of Congress and media commentators complained that detainees at Guantanamo Bay — the U.S. base in Cuba — would receive H1N1 vaccines when Americans were still struggling to find them.
But White House spokesman Robert Gibbs denied this on Tuesday. “There is no vaccine in Guantanamo and there’s no vaccine on the way to Guantanamo,” he told reporters.
Editing by Cynthia Osterman