Sick Leave: GATTACA, Policy Manuals, and the Great Commandment

Gattaca, a movie with a title whose letters represent the four nucleotide bases of DNA, tells the story of two brothers determined by genetics. Vincent came into the world naturally, but Anton had help, as you’ll see here in the script excerpt by Andrew Niccol:

GENETICIST: I have taken the liberty of eradicating any potentially prejudicial conditions [in Anton] - premature baldness, myopia, alcoholism and addictive susceptibility, propensity for violence and obesity—

MARIA (interrupting, anxious): —We didn't want—diseases, yes.

ANTONIO (more diplomatic): We were wondering if we should leave some things to chance.

GENETICIST (reassuring): You want to give your child the best possible start. Believe me, we have enough imperfection built-in already. Your child doesn't need any additional burdens. And keep in mind, this child is still you, simply the best of you. You could conceive naturally a thousand times and never get such a result.

Of the two brothers, I’m Vincent. The one with no genetic manipulation, no modifications, no enhancements. I am, as Niccol puts it, one of the "God Children."

I recently endured ten days in bed with meningitis. I spent most of that time in the hospital. I couldn’t drive, email, attend meetings, watch TV with my kids, or go anywhere but to the bathroom. Natural-born, I am. One of the God Children.

All of it made me think about something quite practical: sick leave. How many days do I have? I wondered. And what will happen if I run out before I am well?

This past Wednesday, when I could finally read again without pain, I picked up my employee policy manual—after 15 years on staff—and read it cover-to-cover. This is what I observed:

First, I have an employee policy manual. That means I have a job. Second, I learned that I could miss 12 days of work without losing pay, which, as I discovered through PaidSickDays.org, is a luxury unrealized by more than 40% of private-sector workers in the U.S. That number grows beyond 80% when considering only those earning low-wages.

As young professionals, you have above-average intelligence, something that, surprisingly, may keep you from needing as many sick days as your peers. Even if you do challenge the statistics and end up sick more often than expected, your education will likely provide a higher wage and greater health benefits in a job that offers more paid sick days than those without such life perks.

It seems unfair, this imbalance. In 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Eighty-one percent of employees earning wages in the highest 25 percent of the wage distribution had access to paid sick leave, compared with only 33 percent for employees in the lowest 25 percent."

Current legislative activity stands to affect this statistic in the future. I can’t say whether it should or shouldn’t. However, I do know that when I finished reading my employee policy manual, I thought to myself, "I was sick and you looked after me" (Matthew 25:36). Privilege came to mind. Gratitude came to mind. The combination of Jesus’ promise to heal and my employer’s generous contribution to the process—luxuries, both.

How do I pay these luxuries forward?

Jesus had his way of looking after the sick. Isaiah had his way of looking after the sick, too, beginning with his claim that "the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted…" (Isaiah 61:1). Even my workplace has its way of caring for the sick. I remember perceiving this care between the lines of the legal text, when the good news from my employer said that it is not a liability to be sick as much as it is a reminder that I am human; an interdependent member of a particular community that shares the same virgin DNA.

As a Vincent, my broken body receives this kind of good news (days in the hospital forces it upon you), and I am called to give it in return. I often don’t know how. But I want to use whatever perks I may have in order to demonstrate that if I cease to receive and return this kind of good news, I will cease to be human at all.

Image by Shaury. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Sam Van Eman, Young Professionals editor and narrator of A Beautiful Trench It Was.