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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Okay, let's change seasons for a moment. It's the middle of winter. The person in the next cubicle is sneezing and coughing. You can just about see the germs suspended in the air, and you might be asking why do I have to catch that person's kid's cold?

It's something the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Harvard School of Public Health and NPR wanted to know. NPR's Joanne Silberner has the results of our poll about health and the economy.

JOANNE SILBERNER: The poll shows that working next to someone who's sick is common.

Professor ROBERT BLENDON (Harvard School of Public Health): What we found is about half of people reported that in at least a number of cases, they go to work when they're sick and believe they should stay at home because of the financial issues that are involved.

SILBERNER: That's Robert Blendon of Harvard University, who worked on the poll of adults living in Ohio and Florida. Employers are offering sick leave. About 67 percent of people with jobs in Florida said they had it. For Ohio, it was 60 percent.

Blendon says there are two reasons people go to work sick.

Prof. BLENDON: There looks like there are two type of pressures. There's just no paid sick leave, and then there's just pressure from the employer expecting their employees to be there and people concerned that if they do take a few too many sick days because they're ill, it'll affect their assessment of their performance. And they're worried enough that they say they're going to work when they're ill and probably think they shouldn't have gone.

SILBERNER: Now, there is no information proving this trend of going to work sick is increasing. This appears to be the first time pollsters have asked this question.

Other parts of the poll by NPR, Kaiser and Harvard, though, suggest more workers are going to work sick. Many people said their financial situation has gotten worse over the last year. More than a third said they've had problems getting a good-paying job or a raise because of the economy.

Prof. BLENDON: The fact that so many people feel they can't stay at home because of economic reasons is not the way you would want to go in terms of the best health of families. You'd want them to feel that if they're sick, they have the option of staying home without serious financial penalties.

SILBERNER: That's why San Francisco and Washington, D.C. have recently required many employers to give sick leave. Federal legislation has been proposed. But that's not the cure, says Marc Burgat. He's the vice president of government relations for the California Chamber of Commerce, and he fought against the San Francisco law. He says in this economy, businesses can't afford it.

Mr. MARC BURGAT (Vice President of Government Relations, California Chamber of Commerce): If we start mandating those benefits, some of those entry-level positions will either find reduced benefits, reduced pay or simply find the jobs eliminated.

SILBERNER: He says the best way to deal with sick leave is to leave it up to the marketplace.

Mr. BURGAT: When an employee comes in to look for a job, whether it's an entry-level job or a higher-level job, they're not looking just at the salary, but they're looking at the entire benefits package. And sick leave and medical insurance and those sorts of things are part of that total package, and that's what allows one business to attract employees over another business.

SILBERNER: Whether that will work in a struggling economy remains to be seen. Still, Burgat says, he doesn't want his workers to come in sick. When they're ill, he tells them to stay home. Joanne Silberner, NPR.

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