When Illness Equals Empty Pockets: Choosing Between a Sick Day and a Paycheck

July 11, 2011
New research finds that rural workers are disproportionately affected by a lack of paid sick time compared to urban workers. Workers in rural locations therefore face a tricky decision when they fall ill: Do they take the time off, forfeit pay for that day and possibly put their jobs at risk, or do they risk their health and well-being instead by going to work anyway?

Researchers at the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire found that 44 percent of rural workers lack access to paid sick days (meaning they have fewer than 5 paid sick days annually). In contrast, 34 percent of suburban and 38 percent of central-city workers have fewer than 5 paid sick days each year.

Additionally, a higher proportion of rural working parents lack access to at least 5 days off to care for a sick child without losing pay or having to use vacation time, as compared to urban working parents. That means rural workers are more likely to miss out on pay when they must care for a sick child or family member.

Everyone Gets Sick

“Paid sick days are a central component of job flexibility for rural and urban workers alike. Everyone gets sick, and the lack of paid sick days can place workers in a bind, especially given that workers who lack paid sick days are also more likely to lack other paid leave options, such as vacation days,” said Kristin Smith, family demographer at the Carsey Institute and research assistant professor of sociology. Smith conducted the research with Andrew Schaefer, a research assistant at the Carsey Institute.

The researchers used data on paid sick days and work and family characteristics from The 2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce (NSCW) survey collected by the Families and Work Institute. The measure of paid sick days refers to access to at least 5 paid sick days annually, rather than any access.

The proportions without coverage drop somewhat when only full-time workers are included, but the general pattern of a rural disadvantage remains, researchers added.

The complete report, “Rural Workers Have Less Access to Paid Sick Days,” is available at http://www.carseyinstitute.unh.edu/CarseySearch/search.php?id=165.

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