Stay home or work sick? Omicron raises a conundrum about the lack of sick days



As the raging omicron variant of COVID-19 infects workers across the country, millions of people whose jobs don’t offer paid sick days are having to choose between their health and their paychecks.

While many companies instituted stronger sick leave policies at the start of the pandemic, some of them have scaled back when it comes to vaccine rollouts, although omicron has managed to dodge the shots. injection. Meanwhile, the current labor shortage is adding to the pressure on workers to decide whether to seek medical attention if they cannot afford to stay at home.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” said Daniel Schneider, a professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. “When staffing is depleted because people are sick, it means that people who are working have to do more work and are even more reluctant when it’s their turn to get sick.”

Low-income hourly workers are particularly vulnerable. According to a national employee benefits survey conducted in March by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 80% of private sector workers receive at least one day of sick leave. But only 33% of the lowest-paid workers in the 10% quintile get sick leave, compared with 95% in the top 10%.

A survey this past fall of about 6,600 hourly low-wage workers conducted by Harvard’s Shift Project, which focuses on inequality, found that 65% of those workers reported sick in the last month say they still go to work. This is lower than the 85% of people who showed sick at work before the pandemic, but much higher than is needed during a public health crisis. Schneider says it could be made worse by the lack of omicrons and labor shortages.

Furthermore, Schneider notes that the percentage of workers taking paid sick leave before the pandemic has barely budged during the pandemic — 50% versus 51%, respectively. He further noted that many of the working poor surveyed don’t even have $400 in emergency funds, and that families will now find it even harder to finance the child tax credit. expired, which already puts families a few hundred dollars a month. .

The Associated Press interviewed a worker who started a new job in New Mexico state last month and began experiencing COVID-like symptoms earlier this week. The worker, who asked to remain anonymous because it would jeopardize their job, took a day off to take the test and another two days to wait for the results.

A supervisor called and told employees that they were only eligible for paid sick days if the COVID test results were positive. If the results are negative, workers will have to take unpaid days off, as they have not accrued enough sick leave.

“I think I did the right thing to protect my colleagues,” said the worker, who is still awaiting results and estimates a loss of $160 per business day if they test negative. “Now I wish I just went to work and didn’t say anything.”

A Trader Joe’s worker in California, who also requested anonymity because they don’t want to risk their jobs, said the company allows workers to accumulate paid time off that they can use for vacations or sick days. But once that time is used up, employees often feel like they can’t afford to take unpaid days off.

“I think nowadays many people come to work sick or with what they call ‘allergies’ because they feel they have no other choice,” the worker said.

Trader Joe’s offered risk pay until last spring, and even paid time off if workers have COVID-related symptoms. But workers say those benefits have run out. The company also no longer requires customers to wear masks in all of its stores.

Other companies are cutting the same sick time they offered earlier during the pandemic. Kroger, the country’s largest brick-and-mortar grocery chain, is ending some benefits for unvaccinated wage earners in an effort to force more of them to join as COVID cases -19 rose again. Unvaccinated workers enrolled in Kroger’s health plan will no longer be eligible to receive up to two weeks of emergency leave if they become infected – a policy that was introduced in when the vaccine was not available.

Meanwhile, Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, is halving its pandemic-related paid vacations – from two weeks to one – after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reduced requirements. quarantine for asymptomatic people after a positive test result.

Workers have received some relief from a growing number of states. Over the past decade, 14 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation or ballot measures requiring employers to take paid sick leave, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

On the federal front, however, the movement stalled. Congress passed legislation in the spring of 2020 requiring most employers to provide paid sick leave to employees with COVID-related illnesses. But the request expired on December 31 of that same year. Congress later extended tax credits for employers who voluntarily take paid sick leave, but the extension expired at the end of September, according to the US Department of Labor.

In November, the US House of Representatives passed a version of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan that requires employers to provide 20 days of paid leave to employees who are sick or caring for a member of staff. family. But the fate of that bill is uncertain in the Senate.

“We cannot do things in a patchwork fashion. It must be overall. It has to make sense,” said Josephine Kalipeni, executive director at Family Values ​​@ Work, a national network of 27 state and local coalitions that help campaign for policies like paid vacation days. Sick.

According to a 2020 study by the World Center for Policy Analysis at the University of California, Los Angeles, the US is one of 11 countries worldwide that don’t have any federal regulations on paid sick leave. .

On the other are small business owners like Dawn Crawley, CEO of House Cleaning Heroes, who can’t afford to pay workers when they’re sick. But Crawley is trying to help in other ways. She recently drove a car-free cleaner to a nearby test site. Then she buys the cleaner some potions, orange juice and orange juice.

“If they are absent, I try to give them money, but at the same time my company has to exist,” says Crawley. “If the company runs under them, no one will have a job.”

Even with paid sick leave, workers don’t always know about it.

Ingrid Vilorio, who works at Jack in the Box restaurant in Castro Valley, California, started feeling sick last March and soon tested positive for COVID. Vilorio alerted a supervisor who did not tell her she was eligible for paid sick leave — as well as additional COVID leave — under California law.

Vilorio said the doctor asked her to take 15 days off, but she decided to only take 10 days because she had bills to pay. Months later, a coworker told Vilorio that she owed her salary during her time off. Working through Fight for $15, a group that works to unite fast food workers, Vilorio and her colleagues reported the restaurant to the county health department. Soon after, she was reimbursed.

But Vilorio, who speaks Spanish, said through an interpreter that the problems persisted. She says workers are still sick and are often afraid to speak up.

“Without health, we cannot work,” she said. “We were told that we were frontline workers, but we weren’t treated like that.”


D’Innocenzio reports from New York and Durbin reports from Detroit.

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