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ELLEN GOODMAN

An epidemic of 'presenteeism'

NOT LONG ago, a young actor I know was doing a gig as a waiter. Faced with a truly obnoxious customer, he finally leaned over the table and said theatrically, ''Sir, do you realize that I'm going to be spending time alone with your dinner?"

This was a memorable moment in the annals of sick humor. But this winter, many of the people spending time alone with your dinner -- or huddling around your desk -- are just plain sick.

A particularly nasty little virus has taken down two members of my family and brought Senator Hillary Clinton to the floor in the middle of a speech. The senator, however, picked herself up and went off to her next speech, thereby proving that she was suffering from ''presenteeism."

Presenteeism isn't an ideology, a doctrine, or any other ''ism." It's the opposite of absenteeism. It's the practice of coming to work when you should be in bed.

This ''ism" has become a buzzword in the winter of our discontent. It's the trendy story about workers who fear being considered slackers, have a contagious work ethic, or suffer from what one researcher called the ''macho syndrome," though macho of a unisex variety.

But in real life, what drags a huge number of people to work isn't the macho, it's the money.

Today, 47 percent of the private employees in this country get no paid sick leave. That includes 76 percent of low-wage workers. And to continue the waiter's theme song, it also includes 84 percent of the people who are alone with your dinner.

In addition, 86 million workers don't have a single paid sick day that can be used to care for their kids or their parents. Debra Ness of the National Partnership for Women & Families puts it this way: ''A lot of women are one sick child away from losing their job."

Despite that, the value of paid sick leave has gotten less attention than the value of Echinacea and zinc. The last comprehensive piece of legislation dealing with work and family and health was the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993. It took 13 years of effort and two presidential vetoes by the first George Bush before we were guaranteed 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the serious illness of a family member or ourselves.

This hugely successful legislation has been used by more than 50 million Americans, 40 percent of them men. But FMLA only covers the 60 percent of workers in companies with 50 or more employees. Three-quarters of the people who need but don't take leave say it's because they can't afford to lose a paycheck. One in 10 who take leave actually end up on public assistance.

Now, the National Partnership for Women & Families, the lead group that pushed -- and pushed -- FMLA up The Hill, is pushing the boulder of paid sick leave. A bill to get seven days of paid sick leave in companies of 15 or more -- days that you can use for yourself or a family member -- was first introduced to Congress last summer. Senator Edward Kennedy just pledged to reintroduce it early this year.

Not even the most ardent supporter expects a victory in this Congress. Indeed, it's rumored that the Bush administration wants to scale back FMLA itself. Moreover, Ness acknowledges ruefully, the debate about Social Security is ''sucking up all the oxygen."

At the same time, there's got to be more to offer American families than damage control and Social Security rescue operations. At this time, we could use a little optimism to boost the political immune system.

You don't have to be a working mother juggling a job, a flu, a sick child and a pile of bills to get it. As Ness puts it, ''Very few people believe that you can go day after day, year after year without sick leave."

In 117 countries workers are guaranteed a week or more. Our own federal government gives employees 13 such days. Momentum is building in the states, where 21 bills were introduced last year. California is the first state to have partially paid leave. Could this be contagious?

After generations of social change, the policy lags behind the profamily rhetoric. That's hardly a news bulletin. If there is any common ground, it's a shared understanding of the difficulties of balancing work and family, jobs and the ''rest of life."

''People are struggling just to meet their emergency needs," adds Ness, who is out to build a bipartisan coalition for paid leave. ''We have to ask what does it take to really ensure that families thrive?"

Much more than presenteeism at work and absenteeism at home.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com. 

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