Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/18/2006 12:54:22 PM ET 2006-12-18T17:54:22

It’s flu season again. Maybe you’re feeling achy, stuffed up and a bit feverish.

Well, buck up, buddy. Forget about calling in sick today!

That appears to be the message from many companies that think you’re all taking too much time off for your ailments, whether you’re paid for the time off or not. It’s costing U.S. companies big bucks, and that means workers can expect, and are already seeing, a decline in paid sick time and more stringent sick-time policies.

Recently Wal-Mart Stores Inc. made headlines when word of its new sick-time policy got out.

As of Nov. 10, employees of the discount store giant have to call an 800 number when they are going to be out sick and get a confirmation code. Just calling their direct manager won’t cut it anymore. And if a worker is out seven times during any six-month period they’ll be fired, says John Simley, a spokesman for the company. (Hourly workers at Wal-Mart do not get paid sick time.)

Labor groups, who have been desperately trying to unionize Wal-Mart, cried foul after the new policy was disclosed. But it’s not just Wal-Mart fine-tuning its sick-leave policies. Employers of all sizes are doing what they can to cut costs, and sick time appears to be a fat target.

The rate of unscheduled absenteeism among employees rose to 2.9 percent, the highest level since 1999, says Pamela Wolf, a workplace analyst for CCH, a human resource information firm that tracks the data. In terms of direct cost to the employer, such absences drain the bottom line to the tune of $850,000 annually. That’s not even counting how much companies pay to other workers to cover the time, or pay in overtime, she adds.

What’s surprising is only about half of all U.S workers in the private sector even get paid sick time, and the numbers are declining. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics only 57 percent of private employers offer workers paid sick time, down from 59 percent in 2004.

There are no laws mandating employers to pay employees when they’re under the weather. For prolonged time away from work, there’s the Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires most employers to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid time away from work. And some companies offer short-term disability, but there is no law that says employers have to pony up ka-ching when you’re ka-coughing and out for a few days.

Some lawmakers want to change that. With a Democratic-controlled Congress coming on board next year, legislators are reintroducing a bill called the Health Families Act.

“Paid sick days are a necessity to ensure that workers have the right to take time off to deal with their own medical needs, or those of their families,” U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. “It is appalling that no federal law in the United States guarantees a single day of paid sick leave to employees — particularly when middle-class families are trying so hard to make ends meet.”

DeLauro is House sponsor of the bill, which would require companies with 15 or more employees to provide seven paid sick days a year. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., is the Senate sponsor.

With the aging of the America's work force it seems counterintuitive for corporations to be tightening the screws when it comes to sick time. But barring enactment of a new law, workers have to face today’s workplace reality.

As an employee you have several options. You can try to keep yourself healthy. Lots of companies are offering options in the workplace to work out or learn about good nutrition. Take advantage.

You could consider joining a union and hope your bargaining group can get you a better deal. (About 59 percent of union workers in the private sector have paid sick time, compared with 57 percent among their non-union counterparts, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

Your main alternative is finding a company that offers more flexibility. During the interview process the company’s sick-time policy should be as important to you as wages and health benefits, especially if you have a chronic illness, young kids or an aging parent.

Certain industries such as retail, hospitality and health care are more likely to frown on sick time because they depend on workers showing up to keep the business running, says workplace expert Stephen Viscusi.

But even in retail, employers vary in their approach. Costco, for example, provides workers with six paid sick days a year, and if those days aren’t used employees can roll over half to the next year and get paid for the remaining three, creating a financial incentive to stay healthy.

And more companies are looking at paid-leave banks, according to CCH, the human resource info firm. That’s where workers get an allotment of days and decide whether to use them for sick time, child care or vacation.

An extreme example is junk removal company 1-800-Got-Junk? The workers there get five weeks of personal time that include sick days and vacations. If you don’t use any sick days during the year, you get five weeks to do what you will.

“We think it pays off for us,” says Brian Scudamore, 1-800-Got-Junk’s founder and CEO. “You get people to come in recharged, refreshed and re-energized. Work isn’t everything.”

First time I heard a CEO say that. Maybe he needs to take a sick day.

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