Peep Peterson: Health should not have to come at the expense of income

Peep Peterson (SDE).
Peep Peterson (SDE). Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

I cannot look people in the eye and tell them that the responsible thing to do when sick is to stay home when I know many simply won't be able to afford it come January, Peep Peterson writes.

Are decision-makers in Estonia even capable of imagining the day-to-day coping of an Estonian family the only adult in which makes under the national average salary? Can a person who uses a computer for work imagine a job where working remotely simply isn't possible?

Going to work in Toompea Castle or Stenbock House, we must not forget that legislation to be passed shapes the lives of everyone in Estonia, and we are obligated to calculate effects for everyone, not just one's acquaintances or voter base.

I considered the former sick leave system where an employee is paid nothing for the first three days of illness a mistake back when it was conceived during the 2009 economic crisis. People who work with computers so to speak did not feel the change as acutely. Employers allow people to work remotely in case of mild illness and continue paying their salary. Sick leave certificates only enter play if the illness persists and keeps the person from working from a distance.

Kindergarten teachers, nurses and caregivers, bus drivers, sales personnel and many others cannot work remotely. Their choice was to either stay home and lose three days' or 15 percent of their monthly income or go to work sick. The lower the person's salary and more strained the family budget, the greater the pressure to keep working when ill.

The effects were to be expected. Going to work sick can cause the person to be ill longer, boosts the likelihood of long-term complications and helps viral infections spread to more coworkers and customers.

While the Health Insurance Fund's sick leave benefits budget immediately shrank, the medium and long-term effects of people going to work sick were not measured. Could this be a part of why the average life expectancy grew faster than the number of healthy years over ten years? The health gap is increasingly similar to the wealth gap in Estonia. People who make less money get sick more often, receive less help and die sooner.

The first years of the coronavirus pandemic forced a reality check: recommendations from the government and doctors to stay home when sick could not be taken seriously when their toll on family budgets was that great.

For the person, the previous sick leave benefits system was restored and the number of days for which the employer pays dialed back by one. Sickness benefits started from the second day of illness again instead of the fourth, with the employer paying for four instead of five days. Unfortunately, this change was introduced as temporary and is set to end this year.

I believe Estonia needs to legalize the current system as the permanent one. This has the support of the Estonian Employers Confederation and trade unions. The Health Insurance Fund anticipated continued costs in its summer budget project, knowing that it is better to pay for two additional sick days than cover the cost of complications and widespread illness.

Forecasts suggest the fund's sickness benefits expenses will be on par with 2022 next year as [Covid] close contacts are no longer required to quarantine, which should contribute to a lower number of total sick days. Rapid inflation would put massive pressure on lower-paid people who cannot work remotely to go to work sick.

I cannot look people in the eye and tell them that the responsible thing to do when sick is to stay home when I know many simply won't be able to afford it come January. Being mindful of health should not have to come at the expense of paying bills or feeding one's children. It is better for employees and employers, public health in Estonia and the economy to legalize the current system, instead of returning to the 2009 mistake.

The necessary bills have been tabled and debated and are awaiting good will and economic sense from our coalition partners.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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