Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Is It O.K. to Go to Work While Sick and Sneezing?

January 3, 2016 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicists, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, “Is It O.K. to Go to Work While Sick and Sneezing?


I work for a company that doles out a paltry amount of sick days and paid time off. Because I was nearing the end of the year and had already put in a holiday vacation request and bought plane tickets, I hung on to one day to last the rest of the year.

I caught a bit of a sniffle but soldiered through work because I wanted to keep from using my final day, just in case of a true emergency. But my sneezes and coughs started to meet with some angry glances, and one co-worker took to passing my desk while holding a tissue over her face.

O.K. — message received loud and clear. It’s not polite of me to possibly make co-workers sick. But I really couldn’t afford to take any days without pay. What should I have done in this situation, put co-workers at risk or put my finances at risk? Name Withheld

My response: I suggest that instead of passively asking is it okay or not, or to ask others what you should do, that you actively try to think of alternatives. Then you have options and can solve problems yourself, not just accept situations and write to the paper after it’s too late to matter.

Some options that come to mind for me are:

  • Take your last day off and hope that no emergencies come up before year’s end
  • Involve your manager in the process: Tell your manager you can’t afford any more days without pay, that you’re sick but could still come to work, and ask their advice
  • Ask your manager if you can work from home
  • Ask your manager if taking an extra day off this year could be taken from next year or somehow negotiated
  • Take your last day off, hope you don’t need another, but if you do and your manager doesn’t negotiate with you, to use it as a reason to look for work elsewhere
  • Ask your manager if you can work an extra day if you have to

You know your situation better than I do, or the New York Times does, but my gut tells me at least one of those options could work. I just wrote them fast and not knowing what relationships and circumstances you could take advantage of to improve on those options. I expect you can come up with more than someone external like me can.

The main message is to replace your passive approach of looking for others to solve your problems and tell you what to do to an active, empowering one where you learn to figure things out for yourself and build relationships with people affected by your actions, not presume them outside automatons you can’t influence.

The New York Times response:

Here’s Dr. Appiah’s two cents: When you’re suffering from a cold, and even for a few days after your symptoms are gone, you should keep hand sanitizer around and use it regularly before touching anything in the office. And you should avoid uncovered sneezes. Those two things will significantly reduce your chance of passing on the virus. (I spent eight months studying medicine once. This and Google make me an authority on such questions.) So far as the ethics go: You ought to take reasonable measures to keep from passing on infections to co-workers, and staying home is a good way of doing that.

This is not just a matter of etiquette (as your use of the word ‘‘polite’’ suggests). Banking your sick days as you’re doing is selfish, though understandable. Certainly your firm’s policy may need rethinking. For one thing, it could be bad business. If people are coming to work while infectious because they need to keep sick days for when things get really dire, more employees are going to fall ill than would happen with a more generous policy. That means more people working under par, which reduces productivity. You would need to know more to figure out what the net effect would be, but a stingy sick-day policy might well be costlier to the firm than a more generous policy that kept the office a healthier place. Of course, your firm should think about the health of its workers in terms of their best interests as well as its productivity costs. Perhaps you should suggest that they revisit the matter from both perspectives. Gesundheit.

My brother and I disagree about his right to a government benefit. My brother has been employed by the United States government for nine years. Before this, he worked at private companies. He has a college degree and borrowed money from the government in order to fund his education. He graduated 15 years ago but did not always stay current with his student loans. In fact, he doesn’t manage money well. About six years ago, I helped him by paying his credit-card debts so that he only had to pay off his student loans. The way I understand student loans is that after 10 years, they should all be paid off.

Recently, I learned that he still has his student loans, and that if he makes payments for another year, he can apply for a loan-forgiveness program: The government will wipe out the rest of his loan balance. I find this really annoying. I asked why he did not just pay off the loans as he could afford to do so. He is single with no dependents and makes a very good income.

My argument with him is that even though the loan-forgiveness program is a benefit that he has as a government employee, it is really meant for people who are financially in need of it — like teachers, who do not make high salaries. He likened the program to receiving stocks when you work in a start-up and asked me if I would pass this up. I don’t think this is the same thing. Then he compared it to people joining the Army and getting an educational scholarship for the years of service. I still do not think this is the same. My logic is this: He had his loans before he became a government worker. People joining the Army have a contractual agreement with the government before they start the job. I am all for people who take low-paying government jobs using this benefit. It is meant for them. (I also think that by funding this program, the government has to take from another program, as there isn’t unlimited money.)

I borrowed money years ago for both my undergraduate and graduate degrees. I paid it all back (early, of course) and really appreciated having access to funds that allowed me to obtain my education. My family immigrated to the United States, and we did take advantage of the federal programs available to help us get on our feet. But I believe once you’re on your feet, you shouldn’t dip into funding that was designed and intended for people who need it. Am I wrong? Name Withheld

My response: If you’re talking about a government right, read the law.

You can apply your logic all you want, but government rights don’t depend on your opinion. If the law says he gets it but you consider the result unintended, well, plenty of laws have unintended results. That doesn’t make it go away.

The New York Times response:

It’s hard to design programs that help only a targeted group of people with real need. So lots of tax advantages and other government benefits are available to people who could do without them. Plenty of older people don’t need Social Security to get by, even to live well. That’s no reason for them not to take it. Government employees, even well-paid ones, often earn less than people doing comparable jobs in the private sector. Provided they follow the rules, they should feel free to take advantage of whatever benefits are available to them. As for consequences, your brother’s debt forgiveness will fall within the rounding error of the program’s budget. No one who needs help won’t get it because he does.

Society is a vast scheme of rules and provisions. They cannot map precisely onto what their beneficiaries need or deserve. And it’s not up to us as individuals to tailor them to our personal situations. Forgive your improvident brother for having his loans forgiven.

At the conclusion of a meal at one of the better restaurants in Manhattan, the owner brought out a final, unexpected course as a gift to us: a huge, beautiful shish kebab, grilled chopped meat on twin skewers. I quipped, ‘‘That’s enough meat to feed the entire ISIS army.’’ The owner laughed, but two much younger friends with me did not. They were upset by what they said was my insensitivity. The shish-kebab incident occurred about 10 days after the ISIS attack in Paris, and my young friends said they were too shaken by the events to find anything humorous in ISIS, that living in Manhattan meant living with the fear that this could happen here. They said a remark such as mine was likely to offend people. I am about twice their age, and I was astonished. To me, making fun of the enemy is acceptable, patriotic and even necessary, a minor but effective means of diminishing any aura of invincibility. (In fact, no figure in history was more often mocked than Adolf Hitler, starting with Chaplin’s famous ‘‘The Great Dictator’’ in 1940.) To me (and perhaps my generation), humor is a form of audacity, a small show of fearlessness, and a punch line is preferable to doing nothing. Was I wrong? Should I have apologized? Name Withheld

My response: You have different values and perspectives than they do. You don’t think you were wrong. They do. What difference does a label make?

I suggest that instead of thinking about judgment and labels, you think of the results of your actions. Do you want to argue with them or try to pull rank with the New York Times’s response? What does that get you?

Why not try to understand them and make them feel understood? Then, if they feel understood, to see if they’re interested in understanding you? Instead of judgment and imposing values on each other, you could use this as an opportunity to learn and grow. Crazy concept, isn’t it? You can learn a lot when you aren’t busy judging and labeling. I find you can do so any time you find your values differ from others’.

Isn’t that the point of freedom—to accept, learn from, and even celebrate others’ values instead of judging each other right and wrong?

The New York Times response:

Tragedy plus time equals comedy, they say. But they don’t say how much time. Which might be why ‘‘Too soon?’’ has itself become a punch line. Your jest wouldn’t have earned you a job at ‘‘The Daily Show’’ — maybe you had to be there — but probably merited a wry, indulgent smile. The self-serious response of your dinner companions suggests a kind of narcissism of borrowed tragedy. It’s a syndrome that amounts to inverted empathy: Other people’s suffering becomes about you. You get to feel you’re owed a measure of the deference and compassion that the victims are.

Yes, it could happen here. But putting on a display of anxiety — pretraumatic stress — is the wrong way to go. On the other hand, I can’t quite endorse the notion that your wisecrack was an audacious act of resistance: Let’s go easy on the heroism sauce.

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