WASHINGTON, DC—New research from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) finds that, after correcting for job tenure requirements imposed by employers, only 58 percent of private sector employees in the U.S. had access to paid sick days in 2010. Overall, 44 million private sector employees in the U.S. lacked paid sick days.

IWPR’s estimate for employees who lack paid sick days is four percentage points higher than the most recent estimate from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics using data from the National Compensation Survey (NCS). The NCS data does not account for employees who are not yet covered for paid sick days due to employer-imposed requirements for job tenure. On average, employees have to wait 78 business days (about 3.5 months) before access to paid sick days is available to them.

“The fewer the number of workers who are able to stay home when sick, the more likely it is that diseases will spread, increasing health care costs and causing needless economic losses,” said Dr. Robert Drago, director of research with IWPR. “We saw this during the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic when workers without paid sick days were more likely to go to work while infected with H1N1.”

With only 23 percent able to access paid sick days, employees in the food service and preparation industry have the lowest rate of access. Occupations with both low rates of eligibility for paid sick days and high rates of employee turnover not surprisingly generate extremely low rates of coverage—leaving workers much more vulnerable in the event of sudden illness or injury. These also include jobs in construction and extraction, personal care and service, and protective services.

“This study has important implications for the nation’s economy,” said Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families. “With unemployment so high and job searches taking so long, greater access to earned paid sick days will help ensure that workers won’t lose their jobs if they get sick or a child needs care. That is especially important for low-income workers who are already struggling terribly in this recession.”

San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee have passed laws requiring that employers provide paid sick days to workers. Similar laws are being considered in states and cities around the country including New York City. The Healthy Families Act, introduced in Congress every year since 2005, would mandate employer-provided paid sick days at the national level.