Mon. Jan 24th, 2022

Because the raging Omicron variant of COVID-19 infects workers across the country, millions of those whose jobs do not offer paid sick days have to choose between their health and their salary.

While many companies introduced more robust sick leave policies at the outset of the pandemic, some of them have since been scaled down with the deployment of the vaccines, though Omicron has managed to evade the shots. Meanwhile, the current labor shortage adds to the pressure for workers to decide whether to turn up sick at work if they can not afford to stay at home.

“It’s a vicious circle,” said Daniel Schneider, a professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. “As staff members become exhausted because people are ill, it means that those who are at work have to do more and are even more reluctant to report sick when they in turn become ill.”

Low-income hourly workers are particularly vulnerable. Nearly 80 percent of all workers in the private sector receive at least one paid sick day, according to a national Employee Benefits Survey conducted in March by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. But only 33 percent of workers whose wages are among the bottom 10 percent get paid sick leave, compared to 95 percent in the top 10 percent.

A survey last fall of about 6,600 hourly low-wage workers conducted by Harvard’s Shift Project, which focuses on inequality, found that 65 percent of those workers who reported sick in the past month said they would go to work anyway. has. This is lower than the 85 percent who showed up to work ill before the pandemic, but much higher than it should be in the midst of a public health crisis. Schneider said it could get worse because of Omicron and the labor shortage.

A worker is seen wearing a mask while organizing merchandise at a Walmart storeWalmart, the country’s largest retailer, halved pandemic-related paid leave – from two weeks to one – after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reduced isolation requirements for people who did not have symptoms after testing positive. [File: Eduardo Munoz/Reuters]

What’s more, Schneider noted that the proportion of workers on paid sick leave before the pandemic barely moved during the pandemic – 50 percent versus 51 percent, respectively. He further noted that many of the working poor surveyed did not even have $ 400 in emergency funds, and families will now be even more financially burdened with the expiration of the child tax credit, which amounts to several hundred dollars in families each month. bags placed.

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

A supervisor called and told the worker they would only qualify for paid sick days if the COVID test turned out to be positive. If the test is negative, the worker will have to take the days without pay as they have not accumulated enough time for sick leave.

“I thought I was doing the right thing by protecting my co-workers,” said the worker, who is still waiting for the results and estimates it will cost $ 160 a day of work missed if they test negative. “Now, I wish I would have just gone to work and said nothing.”

A trader Joe’s worker in California, who also asked not to be named because they did not want to risk their jobs, said the company allows workers paid time off on what they can use for vacations or sick days. But once that time is used up, employees often feel that they can not afford to take unpaid days.

“I think a lot of people now 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 fare until early last year, and even paid time off if workers had COVID-related symptoms. But the worker said those benefits ended. The company also no longer requires customers to wear masks in all its stores.

The Kroger supermarket chain is headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio, USAKroger terminates some benefits for unvaccinated employees in an effort to force more of them to quit as COVID-19 cases increase again [File: Lisa Baertlein/Reuters]

Other companies are also limiting the sick time they offered earlier in the pandemic. Kroger, the country’s largest traditional grocery chain, is ending some benefits for unvaccinated workers in an effort to force more of them to quit as COVID-19 cases increase again. Unvaccinated workers enrolled in Kroger’s healthcare plan will no longer be eligible for up to two weeks’ paid emergency leave if they become infected – a policy introduced last year when vaccines were not available.

Meanwhile, Walmart, the country’s largest retailer, is reducing pandemic-related paid leave in half – from two weeks to one – after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reduced the isolation requirements for people who do not have symptoms after testing positive.

Workers have received some relief from a growing number of states. In the past decade, 14 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws or ballot papers that require employers to provide paid sick leave, according to the National Conference of State Lawmakers.

On the federal front, however, the movement came to a standstill. Congress passed a law in early 2020 that required most employers to provide 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 provide voluntarily paid sick leave, but the extension expired at the end of September, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

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

“We can not do a patchwork thing. It must be holistic. It must be meaningful, ”said Josephine Kalipeni, executive director of Family Values ​​@ Work, a national network of 27 state and local coalitions that help advocate policies such as paid sick days.

The US is one of only 11 countries worldwide without any federal mandate for paid sick leave, according to a 2020 study by the World Policy Analysis Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.

On the other hand, there are small business owners like Dawn Crawley, CEO of House Cleaning Heroes, who can not afford to pay workers when they are sick. But Crawley tries to help in other ways. She recently drove one cleaner who did not have a car to a nearby test site. She later bought medicine, orange juice and oranges for the cleaner.

“When they’re out, I try to give them money, but at the same time, my company has to survive,” Crawley said. ″ If the company goes under, no one has a job.

Even when paid sick leave is available, workers are not always made aware of it.

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

Vilorio said her doctor told her to take 15 days off, but she decided to only take 10 days because she has bills to pay. Months later, a co-worker told Vilorio she owed sick pay for the time she was off. Through Fight for $ 15, a group working to unite fast food workers, Vilorio and her colleagues reported the restaurant to the province’s health department. Shortly afterwards, his refund was given.

But Vilorio, who speaks Spanish, was told by a translator that problems persist. Workers are still getting sick, she said, and are often afraid to talk.

“Without our health we can not work,” she said. “We are told that we are frontline workers, but we are not treated that way.”

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