The flu will send around 200,000 Americans to the hospital in the next few months. Unfortunately, many of them will have to take unpaid time off from work in order to go.

About 44 million private sector employees – 40 percent of the workforce – don’t get any paid sick days, forcing them to choose between getting well and getting a full paycheck.

That won’t change any time soon here in Maine, where a bill to mandate paid sick leave failed to get past the Legislative Council last week.

But a better path remains open, through federal legislation that would protect and enhance both employers and employees.

The Healthy Families Act, which would require all businesses with 15 or more employees to offer up to seven paid sick days each year, was reintroduced in Congress earlier this year.

In the past, however, similar measures have faced obstacles, particularly from businesses who say paid sick leave is too expensive.

That’s a short-sighted view, particularly when all businesses would be subject to the same costs. What’s more, analysis has shown that workers with access to paid sick time have higher productivity, and employers that offer it experience lower turnover, and lower costs in the long run.

Plus, it is simply the right thing to do. No one should be forced to go to work with the flu, or to send their kid to school sick, and risk infecting others, because they can’t afford a day off.

That was the argument President Obama made earlier this year as he used executive power to force federal contractors to provide paid sick leave, up to seven days a year starting in 2017, for workers to care for themselves or family members.

Obama’s order was derided by opponents as overreach. In reality, it was the president taking action within his powers to give workers basic rights that Congress would not provide.

Connecticut and Massachusetts have similarly given up on waiting for Congress to act.

Massachusetts residents approved a ballot measure last November requiring employers with 11 or more employees to allow workers to accrue an hour of paid leave for every 30 hours worked, up to 40 hours of sick leave. It went into effect July 1 and affected about 900,000 workers.

Connecticut passed a similar law two years ago, albeit only for larger businesses, and saw none of the negative effects that opponents predicted.

Proposals on the matter in Maine failed in 2007 and 2010, and last week a bill modeled after the Massachusetts law and sponsored by Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, was rejected by the Legislative Council, meaning it won’t be considered by the full Legislature in the next session, which starts in January.

That’s unfortunate, but it doesn’t matter if Congress acts both morally and practically to protect employees, and passes the Healthy Families Act.