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.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Are states ready to roll out COVID-19 vaccines?

Claire Hannan, executive director of the nonprofit Association of Immunization Managers, which represents state health officials, said states have been making good progress in their preparations. And we could have several vaccines pretty soon. But states still need more funding, she said. Hannan doesn’t think a lack of additional funding would hold up distribution initially, but it could cause problems down the road. “It’s really worrisome that Congress may not pass funding or that there’s information circulating saying that states don’t need additional funding,” she said.

How is the service industry dealing with the return of coronavirus restrictions?

Without another round of something like the Paycheck Protection Program, which kept a lot of businesses afloat during the pandemic’s early stages, the outlook is bleak for places like restaurants. Some in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, only got one week of indoor dining back before cases rose and restrictions went back into effect. Restaurant owners are revamping their business models in an effort to survive while waiting to see if they’ll be able to get more aid.

How are hospitals handling the nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases?

As the pandemic surges and more medical professionals themselves are coming down with COVID, nearly 1 in 5 hospitals in the country report having a critical shortage of staff, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. One of the knock-on effects of staff shortages is that people who have other medical needs are being asked to wait.

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