Retirement has one wonderful benefit that I don’t ever remember anyone talking about: separation from germ-carrying, virus-spreading, cootie-laden coworkers ready to infect you at any turn.
Isn’t it ironic? Once you can stop worrying about sick days, there’s no one around to make you sick.
In my experience, Corporate America has a terrible attitude toward sick days.
Many companies provide them, grudgingly, even as they brag about the generosity of their benefits packages. “You will accrue one sick day every two months starting with the commencement of your other benefits, at the end of your probation period, three months from your date of employment. Sick days that are not used by the end of the calendar year will not be carried over.”
Magnanimous, huh? It is… until you translate it. “If you take a sick day at any point in your first three months of work, the least we will do is dock you, and we may, if we want to, actually fire you. As an additional incentive not to get sick, you will have no health insurance coverage for that period. Afterwards, we’ll give you one day every two months until the end of December, when we take them away again.”
You take it seriously. You put Zicam© up your nose with all the fervor of a coked-out rock star. You take such an excess of vitamins that your urine resembles Gator Aide. You swallow Advil before your muscles ache, Tums before you decide what to eat, Pepto-Bismol even if you’re regular.
You will yourself to be well, damn it, even though you work with people who sneeze in your face and cough into their fists before shaking your hand. You commute many long miles with near-moribund beings who should ring loud bells and proclaim themselves “Unclean.”
And on the thirty-first day, you catch such a flu that next to you, La Traviata looks like a triathlon champion.
You think I’m kidding? That’s exactly how it happened to me when I was a wee young innocent, starting my first job. On day 31, I called in and told them I had the flu.
“How do you know?” my boss asked.
“I’m coughing, sneezing, my joints hurt and I’m running a temperature.”
“Yeah, that sounds bad. Come on in and let the company nurse take a look at you.”
“Why?” I asked. “I live with my parents and my father’s a doctor. He says I have the flu.”
“Oh, we can’t accept the diagnosis of an immediate family member. Our procedure is that you come in and let the company nurse see you. Otherwise, you’ll have to bring in a note from a doctor who isn’t a relative.”
It’s so good to be trusted.
I got a note and came back when I was well… but still, there was a problem.
“You don’t look like you have the flu.”
“Well, no. I stayed home and rested until I got better.”
“You don’t want to be accused of malingering.”
“Malingering. Taking advantage of the company’s generosity by spending too many days at home. You should have come back sooner.”
“But my nose was runny! I couldn’t stop coughing!”
“Don’t you want the brass to see you playing wounded? It shows commitment.”
I wondered whether I belonged on this team, but I learned to play by the rules. I even internalized them; as you may suspect, stupidity is infectious.
This became very clear a decade later, when I had my kids.
By then, I’d started working for a succession of companies with simplified benefit packages. They didn’t actually provide “sick days” or “vacation days.” They provided a number of days a year (anywhere from 10 to 20, depending on length of service) when employees could choose not to come in to work.
I quickly learned what this meant for women: all your “free” days are spent staying at home with sick kids. You’d be surprised at how often children get sick when they’re ensconced in crowded classrooms with the scions of other working mothers.
Longing for one lousy day of real vacation, I began asking my children to play wounded.
“Please, sweetheart. I know your tummy feels funny, but please don’t throw up until Mommy picks you up tonight, okay? Please?”
Of course, halfway through the workday, a call would come.
One day, my department’s secretary handed me a note. “Your son’s school says you have to pick him up right away. He’s not feeling well.”
His teacher didn’t know what she was asking. I was a corporate trainer for a large cable company. People drove long distances to attend my classes, often incurring lodging expenses, and missing up to a week of work to take my courses. I had no understudy.
The only thing my boss hated more than trainers who abandoned their classrooms was mothers who valued their kids over their jobs.
But I had no choice.
I gave my trainees a half-hour break, jumped in my car, drove 15 miles to pick up my son and raced the 15 miles back. While I had him in the car, I admonished him SERIOUSLY: “I am going to lock you in my office. You will have paper, crayons, and a TV set (cable has its perks). You are to sit there quietly until Mommy comes back. You are not to leave the room, not to wander the halls, and not to say a word to anyone, do you understand?”
I went back into my classroom, shut the door, and resumed teaching.
Meanwhile, my darling boy decided to ignore everything I’d said to him and saunter to the back of the building. That’s where the technicians were trained, in a gymnasium-sized room filled with telephone poles and mock housefronts, where they could learn how to hook up services.
Half a dozen young men, wearing gaffes for the first time, were making their initial and very tentative climbs up the phone poles, as my five-year-old walked into their midst.
“Hi! I’m Alex, and I’m here because I have diarrhea!”
None of the falls from the poles resulted in serious injuries… thank goodness, because none of those young techs had health insurance yet.
I was reamed a new one for not having the foresight to plan ahead for my children’s illnesses.
They’re grown now. Sometimes they call me from work. “Mommy, I am so sick. I don’t know what I’m doing here. I can’t wait until I get to bed tonight.”
“So go home!” I tell them.
“I can’t! I don’t want to waste another sick day. And besides, nobody knows how to do my job. People are counting on me.”
They stay at their workplaces and infect all their co-workers, who will catch and nourish their germs, bugs and viruses until they’re ready to pass them back.
Meanwhile, now that I’m retired, with plenty of time to lie in bed and feel miserable, I’m as healthy as a horse.