COVID-19

America’s lack of sick leave is a problem in COVID-19 outbreak

Meghan McCarty Carino Feb 26, 2020
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A woman wears a medical mask while waiting at Los Angeles International Airport on Feb. 2. David McNew/Getty Images
COVID-19

America’s lack of sick leave is a problem in COVID-19 outbreak

Meghan McCarty Carino Feb 26, 2020
A woman wears a medical mask while waiting at Los Angeles International Airport on Feb. 2. David McNew/Getty Images
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As fears of COVID-19 intensify in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has offered some pretty simple advice: Stay home if you’re sick. But for many American workers, that’s easier said than done.

Scott Marana, for instance, has taken one sick day in the last 15 years — not that he hasn’t been sick on other days. He said twice in the last couple months he’s powered through nasty colds at work, taking lots of precautions because he works at a hospital in Vale, Colorado, where he manages imaging systems in an operating room.

“I kind of feel like even if I am sick, I need to be there to make sure that these surgeries go smoothly, because I’m the only one who does what I do,” he said.

Like many Americans, he feels like he has no choice. And that attitude could be a big problem, according to Karen Scott, a Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. She’s written about the challenges to containing a coronavirus outbreak in American workplaces.

“Our system isn’t really set up for people to get sick at all,” she said, pointing to the H1N1 flu in 2009. Research from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and Pennsylvania State University estimated about a third of sickened workers reported to the job despite showing symptoms, causing the disease to spread to as many as 7 million additional people.

The U.S. is the only wealthy country in the world that doesn’t ensure any paid sick time, leaving about a third of workers in the private sector without any sick days and an even bigger share of service workers who interact with the public and handle food.

“So basically they have to choose between risking losing their job and their own health or that of their families,” said Ruth Milkman, a labor sociologist at the City University of New York.

The situation is improving at the local level, said Milkman: 11 states and several more cities now require paid sick leave. But, she points out, even workers who have paid sick time frequently don’t use it.

“They get the not-so-hidden message from their employer that even if they’re entitled to paid sick time that it’s really better if they come in,” she said.

A recent survey from staffing firm Accountemps found 90% of professionals have gone into work sick because they felt they had too much to do.

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