Wall Street Journal complains about workers using their sick days

A recent Wall Street Journal article — an actual article, in the workplace/lifestyle section, not even an op-ed! — laments the recent trend of horrible, lazy workers who, umm … *checks notes* … take their sick days?

U.S. workers have long viewed an unwillingness to take sick days as a badge of honor. That's a laurel workers care much less about these days. 


For one, more workers are using up sick time often for reasons such as mental health. And unlike older workers, who might have been loath to call in sick for fear of seeming weak or unreliable, younger workers feel more entitled to take full advantage of the benefits they've been given, executives and recruiters say. That confidence has only grown as record low unemployment persists. 

The gall of some people! Taking the sick days that are literally just another form of financial compensation that the company pays them in exchange for labor. In fact, the article itself even reinforces this point by making multiple references to the financial burden that using your sick days when you're sick places on the poor companies, who are the real victims here:

Some employers, such as Stellantis, complain such worker absences are driving up costs. The Detroit carmaker has repeatedly brought up the issue as contract talks with the United Auto Workers proceed, saying it lost 10.9% of hourly worker time in 2022 because of unplanned absenteeism. 


"The accounting team is not happy with me providing this time off, because it's a liability for the company," [Crystal Williams, chief human resources officer at global business payments company Fleetcor] says of the extra cost of sometimes adding staffing to ensure adequate coverage amid absences. 


Prepandemic, Fleetcor workers in their 20s and 30s took one or two sick days a year, she says. Now, it's more like three to five.

Three to five sick days! Out of the, what, probably at least ten a year that they're given for an administrative job in the finance sector. O, what indescribable horrors!

Just to be clear: the idea that sick days somehow impose a financial burden of the company is a blatant lie of criminal proportions. It is a justification for wage theft — the most common and most costly form of burglary in America. Sick days are part of an employees' compensation package; therefore, sick days are just another form of money owed to the workers. If a company is spending the money that it legally and contractually owes to a worker on something else, and now they're having trouble balancing their books? That's their problem. Sometimes employees leave without using all of their sick days, and depending on the terms of the employment contract, the company might not have to pay them out for that time. The company should consider that a win for themselves — a little extra relative surplus value, if you will, but certainly not part of their operation budget.

To be fair, article author Te-Ping Chen (whose recent short story collection was on Barack Obama's annual reading list, huh) does quote some people, including HR workers, who acknowledge that hey, this is maybe a good thing. When people are sick, they usually aren't doing their best work anyway, so it's ultimately better for the company if they let their workers, ya know, actually recuperate. But even those anecdotes are presented as radical outliers to the assumption that not taking sick days is good, actually. And naturally, they're held until the very end of the article, to help uphold the illusion of both-sides objectivism.

You may be wondering why exactly an article such as this is being published as "journalism" rather than an opinion piece, even in an outlet such as The Wall Street Journal. As it turns out, the "newsworthy" hook here is a recent study published earlier this month by Gusto, a "payroll and benefits software company," which shared some data surrounding changing in sick time usage before and after the social height of the COVID-19 pandemic. But even that dataset is…interesting, to say the least:

So far this year, 30% of all employees working in the professional services industries with an active PTO policy have taken sick leave. That's up 42% from 2019. Additionally, the average amount of time taken by professional services workers who took sick leave has increased by 15% since 2019 to an average of 15.5 hours per year. 

Furthermore, while all age groups have seen a rise in the share of professional services workers taking sick leave, workers 25-34 years old have seen the largest increase: 32% percent of workers aged 25 to 34 have taken sick leave so far in 2023, compared to 28% of workers aged 35 to 54. 

Hold on. So less than a third of workers have taken sick leave so far this year? Even though we're 80% of the way through it? And you're mad because … that's a slightly higher number than it used to be?

The only reasonable conclusion I can draw from those sort of numbers is that people still aren't taking nearly enough sick time.

'I Just Wasn't in the Mood to Work.' American Employees Reinvent the Sick Day [Te-Ping Chen / Wall Street Journal]