President Donald Trump, standing with Vice President Mike Pence and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, right, talks to reporters about the coronavirus outbreak on Tuesday, March 10, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Credit: Susan Walsh | AP

The spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. has shone a light on the shortcomings of the American public health system, which is heavily reliant on illness prevention.

By now, the advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about how to minimize the spread of the COVID-19 virus should be familiar: Wash your hands; don’t touch your mouth, nose and eyes; cough and sneeze into your sleeve or a tissue; and stay home when you are sick.

It’s all appropriate and important guidance. However, millions of Americans can’t simply stay home, or work from home, when they, or family members, are ill. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 27 percent of employees in the private sector lacked paid sick leave in 2019. Worse, while those in management were very likely to have access to paid sick leave, only 30 percent of the lowest-paid workers did. Less than half of part-time private sector workers had this benefit.

Not only do these workers not stay home when they are sick, they are far less likely to get medical care for their illnesses as well. This puts the workers, their coworkers and the general public at risk.

Many of these low-wage workers come into close contact with the public, providing care to the elderly and sick or serving food at restaurants, for example. When these workers come to work sick because they have no sick leave, there is a heightened chance of their passing along illnesses.

A research paper, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, called this “contagious presenteeism.” Focusing on the flu, the researchers found that infection rates dropped by up to 20 percent in cities immediately after paid sick leave policies were put in place.

Maine passed a statewide paid leave law last year. It covers about 85 percent of the state’s workforce; businesses with fewer than 10 employees are exempted. But, it does not go into effect until next year, so it won’t be available to mute the impacts of coronavirus, if and when it is found in Maine.

In addition to public health benefits, paid leave helps companies, the bill’s sponsor Sen. Rebecca Millett, noted in her testimony to the Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee last year. She noted that “presenteeism” costs our economy an estimated $160 billion a year in lost productivity because sick employees aren’t as productive as those who aren’t ill.

“Allowing employees to earn paid sick time makes sense for businesses if they want to grow morale, company productivity and their bottom line,” Millett said in her testimony.

“A statewide earned paid sick time policy represents everything that Maine claims to value most: strong families, healthy communities, a quality workforce and a thriving economy,” she also told committee members.

A broader paid leave proposal remains under consideration in the Legislature.

President Donald Trump has mentioned paid sick leave as part of a much larger package of coronavirus assistance, much of it directed to the travel industry. Democrats, too, have a plan that also includes free coronavirus testing and expanded food subsidies.

Paid sick time is a good policy, now and when the coronavirus becomes a distant memory. It should not become bogged down in political infighting. And, businesses don’t have to wait for federal or state regulations to implement such a policy. Darden Restaurants, which operates Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse and other restaurants, announced this week that it was implementing a paid sick leave policy for all its hourly employees. The company said the plan has been in the works, but the coronavirus sped up the introduction.

It is easy to tell workers to stay home when they are sick. It is harder to ensure that public policy makes that possible.