Stay at home or work ill? Omicron poses a riddle

As the unleashed omicron variant of COVID-19 infects workers across the country, millions of those whose jobs do not provide paid sick leave must choose between their health and their wages.

As the unleashed omicron variant of COVID-19 infects workers across the country, millions of those whose jobs do not provide paid sick leave must choose between their health and their wages.

While many companies instituted more robust sick leave policies early in the pandemic, some have since been scaled back with the vaccine rollout, even though omicron has managed to evade the gunfire. Meanwhile, the current labor shortage adds to pressure from workers who must decide whether to report to work due to illness if they cannot afford to stay home.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” said Daniel Schneider, professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. “As the workforce is running out because people are sick, it means those at work have more to do and are even more reluctant to call sick when they themselves fall ill. “

Low-income hourly workers are particularly vulnerable. Almost 80% of all workers in the private sector enjoy at least one paid sick day, according to a national survey of employee benefits pay conducted in March by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. But only 33% of workers with wages in the bottom 10% get paid sick leave, compared to 95% in the top 10%.

A survey last fall of around 6,600 low-hourly paid workers conducted by Harvard’s Shift Project, which focuses on inequality, found that 65% of workers who said they had been sick in the last month had stated that they still went to work. That’s less than the 85% who showed up to work sick before the pandemic, but far more than it should be in the midst of a public health crisis. Schneider says it could get worse because of the omicron and the labor shortage.

Additionally, Schneider noted that the share of workers receiving paid sick leave before the pandemic barely budged during the pandemic – 50% versus 51% respectively. He further noted that many of the working poor interviewed do not even have $ 400 in emergency funds, and families will now be even more strapped for cash with the expiration of the child tax credit. who put a few hundred dollars in families’ pockets every month. .

The Associated Press interviewed a worker who started a new job in the state of New Mexico last month and started experiencing COVID-like symptoms earlier in the week. The worker, who asked not to be named because it could jeopardize his job, took a day off to get tested and two more days to wait for results.

A supervisor called and told the worker he would only be entitled to paid sick days if the COVID test tested positive. If the test is negative, the worker will have to take the days without pay, because he has not accumulated enough time for sick leave.

“I thought I was doing the right thing by protecting my coworkers,” said the worker, who is still awaiting the results and estimates it will cost $ 160 per day of missed work if it is negative. “Now I wish I had gone to work without saying anything.”

An employee of Trader Joe’s in California, who also asked not to be named because he didn’t want to risk his job, said the company allows workers to accumulate paid time off that they can use for jobs. vacation or sick leave. But once that time is up, employees often feel like they can’t afford to take unpaid days.

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

Trader Joe’s offered a risk premium until last spring and even paid time off if workers showed symptoms related to COVID. But the worker said those benefits ended. The company also no longer requires customers to wear masks in all of its stores.

Other companies are similarly reducing sick leave they offered earlier in the pandemic. Kroger, the country’s largest traditional grocery chain, is ending some benefits for unvaccinated salaried workers in an attempt to force more of them to receive the vaccine as COVID-19 cases rise again. Unvaccinated workers enrolled in Kroger’s health care plan will no longer be eligible to receive up to two weeks of paid emergency leave if they become infected – a policy that was put in place last year when vaccines were not available.

Meanwhile, Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, cut pandemic-related paid vacation in half – from two weeks to one – after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reduced isolation requirements for people who do not show any symptoms after they test positive.

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

On the federal front, on the other hand, the movement is at a standstill. Congress passed a law in the spring of 2020 requiring most employers to grant paid sick leave to employees with COVID-related illnesses. But the requirement expired on December 31 of the same year. Congress later extended tax credits for employers who voluntarily grant paid sick leave, but the extension expired in late September, according to the US Department of Labor.

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

“We can’t do some kind of quilting. It has to be holistic. It must be meaningful, ”said Josephine Kalipeni, executive director of Family Values ​​@ Work, a national network of 27 state and local coalitions helping to advocate for policies such as paid sick leave.

The United States is one of 11 countries in the world that does not have a federal mandate for paid sick leave, according to a 2020 study from the World Policy Analysis Center at the University of California at Los Angeles.

On the other hand, there are small business owners like Dawn Crawley, CEO of House Cleaning Heroes, who cannot afford to pay workers when they are sick. But Crawley tries to help in other ways. She recently drove a cleaner who didn’t have a car to a nearby test site. Later, she bought medicine, orange juice and oranges from the cleaner.

“If they’re away, I try to give them some money, but at the same time my business has to survive,” Crawley said. “If the business goes bankrupt, no one has a job. “

Even when paid sick leave is available, workers are not always informed.

Ingrid Vilorio, who works at a Jack in the Box restaurant in Castro Valley, Calif., Started feeling sick last March and quickly 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 her doctor told her to take 15 days off, but she decided to only take 10 because she had bills to pay. Months later, a colleague told Vilorio that she owed sick pay for the time she was on leave. Working through Fight for $ 15, a group that works to unionize fast food workers, Vilorio and his colleagues reported the restaurant to the county health department. Soon after, she was reimbursed.

But Vilorio, who speaks Spanish, said through a translator that the problems persist. Workers always get sick, she said, and are often afraid to speak.

“Without our health, we cannot work,” she said. “We are told that we are front line workers, but we are not treated like that.”


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

Anne D’innocenzio and Dee-ann Durbin, The Associated Press

Edward K. Thompson