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Published: Wednesday, 10/7/2009

You want flu with that?

WHAT lurks behind the smile of the friendly cashier at the supermarket could be something no customer wants, even though she's giving it out at no cost. Is she handing out swine flu with the change from her customers' purchases? Are the workers at fast-food restaurants tacitly asking, "Want flu with that?" every time they make a burger, pick up a soda cup, or bag some fries?

The answer could be yes if their employers don't provide paid sick leave or promise to hold the jobs of workers who get sick.

According to the U.S. Labor Department, nearly 40 percent of all private-sector workers do not get paid when they have to take a day off because of illness.

Moving down the economic ladder, the numbers get worse: Fewer than 25 percent of part-time workers and 33 percent of the nation's lowest paid workers have paid sick leave. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Ohio closely parallels these national numbers.

Why should other people care? These workers very often hold jobs that require close contact with customers. Frequently, they are the cashier at a local store, the fry cook, or salad prep person at a local restaurant, or the person putting together the brats with all the fixings at sports and entertainment venues.

These same workers also are among the least secure in their jobs, subject to being fired if they miss work for any reason, even sickness. As a result, seven out of 10 told the Labor Department they've gone to work despite having a contagious illness.

That's frightening at any time of year, but especially so during the flu season.

Now, as the nation prepares for the H1N1 virus - the swine flu - it's important to know who's likely to go to work sick so the rest of the population can protect itself from them. Employers, of course, could reduce the risk by encouraging workers to stay home when they're ill, providing paid leave so achy and feverish employees wouldn't have to choose between feeding their families and infecting customers. Businesses could also protect the jobs of workers who are legitimately sick.

If employers refuse, then customers should simply take their business elsewhere until those businesses stop offering burgers with a side order of the flu.

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