A Brief History of Sick Days

When it comes to guaranteeing paid medical leave, the United States is behind many European nations … and possibly the Ancient Egyptians as well.

With Memorial Day almost upon us, millions of Americans are going to be enjoying a well-earned day off. But there is one kind of day off that many Americans don’t enjoy: paid sick leave. Why is that? We reached out to a few experts and consulted the historical record to find out why.

The United States lags behind.

Depending on where you work or what kind of job you have, you might or might not be able to take paid time off work when you’re sick and need to recuperate. And if it seems like there is little rhyme or reason to our country’s system for guaranteeing paid sicks days, well, you’re exactly not wrong about that.

Last year, we wrote a post chronicling the evolution of the U.S. health insurance system, which mostly amounted to laying out a series of historical accidents leading to the current arrangement we enjoy—or maybe don’t enjoy—today. And when it comes to the history of sick days, particularly in the United States, the story is much the same.

“While some level of paid sick leave is a standard workplace benefit in at least 145 countries around the world, currently there are no federal laws requiring private employers to provide paid sick leave for their employees who work in the United States,” explained Timothy Wiedman, retired professor of Management & Human Resources at Doane University (@DoaneUniversity).

“A few U.S. cities (notably San Francisco and Washington, D.C.) have passed such legislation to cover a great many local employees who work within their jurisdictions, but those situations are very rare at this point.”

“On the other hand, the majority of government workers and private-sector unionized employees do receive some level of paid sick leave benefits,” Wiedman continued. “Further, a great many large and medium-sized companies also voluntarily provide some sort of paid sick leave for their (non-union) salaried and clerical employees.”

“So in America, exactly ‘who’ receives paid sick leave—and how much leave they’re entitled to—amounts to a hodgepodge of disparate plans that lack any uniformity.”

Sick leave traces its origins back to Ancient Egypt.

If you expect us to say something like “sick leave actually dates back to the Ancient Greeks,” you’d only be half right. The Ancient Greeks sure did invent a lot of things, but sick leave wasn’t one of them. For that, you’d have to take a trip across the Mediterranean.

“The first record of sick days goes back to ancient Egypt,” said Richard Pummell, Human Resources Lead at DevelopIntelligence. “Craftsmen who were working on the tombs journaled their work activities and when they were paid in grain.

“Historians have noted that these craftsmen continued to receive their payments of grain even after evidence showed the workers had taken ill for a period of time and was unable to work, thereby documenting the first sick days!”

It would take another couple thousand years before the United States of America would even exist—but even then, this country’s views on paid sick leave were a little behind the times. And that view didn’t just extend to paid sick leave, but to the concept of paid vacation in general.

In the 20th century, paid sick leave slowly improves.

After the Industrial Revolution had—well—revolutionized the American workforce, the idea that perhaps giving workers a little extra time off might be good for them and for their employers began to take hole. In 1910, President William Howard Taft proposed legislation that would have guaranteed U.S. two to three months off every year!

As you might have guessed, that bill did not make it through Congress.

“Sick days in the United States have evolved very slowly, said Hummell.” They first entered the vernacular as unions became prevalent and were looking for ways to ensure that members’ pay was consistent. Losing paid time over illness was problematic, and limited amounts of compensation paid for time not worked due to illness became more common. As most unions were engaged in male-dominated fields, females were less likely to be in an occupation that offered paid sick time.”

“As corporations offered expanded benefits starting in the 1950s and ’60s, paid sick days became more common but only to those employed by large organizations. Due to the lack of any federal law regarding payment of sick days to employees, those working for themselves or for smaller companies were not typically afforded this benefit,” he continued.

FMLA represented a big step forward.

Even though paid medical leave was becoming a bit more standard for U.S. employees, there were still no overarching government policies in place. On that front, progress wouldn’t be made for decades: The biggest step forward for paid leave in the United States came during the Clinton Administration.

“In 1993, Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) which provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year for many (but certainly not all) U.S. workers (with no threat of job loss) to deal with personal or family health-related situations that are specified by the law,” said Wiedman.

Still, unpaid medical leave isn’t the same thing as paid sick days. And decades after the passage of the FMLA, there’s a lot of progress still to be made.

“Even now, employees in service industries such as restaurants and hotels are typically not provided with paid sick leave. This benefit is also usually only offered to full-time employees, so anyone who is part-time is also not likely to receive sick pay,” said Pummell.

“Today, only nine states and a number of cities in the US require employers to offer paid sick leave. The United States definitely lags most of Europe in this regard, where extensive sick days that can extend into many weeks are offered and sick leave is managed by the employer, a physician, and the government.”

So what does the future hold for sick days?

A day off to rest up from a nasty cold is a great benefit, but being able to take paid time off to deal with a serious medical issue could mean the difference between a speedy recovery and filing for bankruptcy.

These sorts of issues are how many people end up relying on predatory no credit check loans and short-term bad credit loans—like payday loans, cash advances, and title loans—to make ends meet, trapping them in a dangerous cycle of debt.

So will things change anytime soon? Wiedman thinks so:

“A great many business leaders (especially folks who represented the interests of small businesses) fought the passage of the FMLA It was thought to be the (so-called) ‘thin edge of the wedge’ that would expand to cover more and more workers—and would eventually require paid leave.

“Thus far, that hasn’t happened.  However, numerous politicians have made proposals that seem to fit that general agenda.  So personally, I doubt that the FMLA will remain in its current form indefinitely!”

Are you prepared for a medical emergency?

In order to protect yourself from an unexpected medical issue, you should have a well-stocked emergency fund in place. And that means creating a plan to save money on the regular. To learn more, check out these other posts and articles from OppLoans:

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Richard Pummell has over 30 years of business experience in the software, human resources outsourcing and business process outsourcing industries. He has led management teams that enabled the rapid growth of start-up, small and medium-size companies, and has worked with a number of Fortune 500 and multi-national companies on human resources, process improvement, and systems implementation projects. Most recently, Richard has launched workonnex in the United States, a company providing real-time data and consulting services on employee satisfaction, engagement, and well-being.
After 13 years as a successful operations manager working at two different ‘Fortune 1000’ companies, Dr. Timothy G. Wiedman spent the next 28 years in academia teaching college courses in business, management, human resources, and retirement planning.  Dr. Wiedman recently took an early retirement from Doane University (@DoaneUniversity), is a member of the Human Resources Group of West Michigan and continues to do annual volunteer work for the SHRM Foundation. He holds two graduate degrees in business and has completed multiple professional certifications.


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