Stay home or work sick? Omicron poses a conundrum

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Millions of workers whose jobs don’t provide paid sick days are having to choose between their health and their paychecks, as the Omicron version of COVID-19 rages across the country.

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While many companies instituted more robust sick leave policies at the start of the pandemic, some of them have been scaled back with the rollout of vaccines, even though Omicron managed to avoid shots. Meanwhile, the current labor shortage is adding to the pressure of workers to decide whether they should be sick to show up for their jobs if they can’t afford to stay at home.

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“It’s a vicious circle,” said Daniel Schneider, a professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. “Since staffing is reduced because people are sick, it means those who are at work have more to do and are even more reluctant to get sick when they are sick.”

Low-income hourly workers are particularly vulnerable. Nearly 80% of all private sector workers receive at least one paid sick day, according to the National Compensation Survey of Employee Benefits conducted in March by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But only 33% of workers whose wages are less than 10% get sick leave, compared to 95% in the top 10%.

What’s more, Schneider noted that the share of workers with paid sick leave before the pandemic barely increased during the pandemic — 50% versus 51%, respectively. He went on to say that many of the poor working poor in the survey don’t even have $400 in emergency funds, and families will now be even more financially tied with the end of the Child Tax Credit, which has put a few hundred dollars in families’ pockets each month. were put. ,

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

A supervisor called and told the worker that they would be eligible for paid sick days only if the COVID test turned positive. If the test is negative, the employee will have to spend days without pay, as they do not have enough time for sick leave.

“I thought I was doing the right thing by protecting my co-workers,” said the worker, who is still awaiting results and estimates a $160 per day work discount if they test negative. Will go “Now I wish I had just gone to work and said nothing.”

A Trader Joe’s worker in California, who asked not to be named because they didn’t want to risk their jobs, said the company lets workers earn paid time off that they can use for vacations or sick days. can do for But once that time is up, employees often feel like they can’t take unpaid days off.

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

Trader Joe’s offered hazard pay until last spring, and even paid time off when workers had COVID-related symptoms. But the worker said those benefits were exhausted. The company also no longer requires customers to wear masks in all of its stores.

Other companies are similarly reducing sick time they introduced earlier in the pandemic. Kroger, the nation’s largest traditional grocery chain, is phasing out some benefits for unvaccinated workers, forcing more of them to get the jab as COVID-19 cases resurface. are increasing. Uninfected workers will no longer be eligible to receive up to two weeks of paid emergency leave if they become infected – a policy that was implemented last year when vaccines were unavailable.

Meanwhile, Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, is slashing pandemic-related paid leave in half — from two weeks to one — after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention slashed isolation requirements for people who have There are no symptoms after testing positive.

The increasing number of states has brought some relief to the workers. According to the National Convention of State Legislatures, over the past decade, 14 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws or ballots that require employers to provide paid sick leave.

On the federal front, however, the movement has stalled. Congress passed a law in the spring of 2020 requiring most employers to provide paid sick leave for employees with COVID-related illnesses. But the requirement expired on 31 December of the same year. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Congress later extended tax credits to employers who voluntarily provide paid sick leave, but the extension ended in late September.

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 leave for employees who are sick or caring for a family member. But the future of that bill in the Senate is uncertain.

“We cannot do a kind of patchwork. It should be holistic. It has to be meaningful,” said Josephine Kalipeni, executive director of Family [email protected], a national network of 27 states and local coalitions helping to advocate for policies such as paid sick days.

According to a 2020 study by the World Policy Analysis Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, the US is one of only 11 countries worldwide with no federal mandate for paid sick leave.

On the other hand are small business owners like Don Crowley, CEO of House Cleaning Heroes, who can’t pay workers when they’re sick. But Crowley is trying to help out in other ways. He recently took a cleaner to a nearby test site who didn’t have a car. Later he bought some medicine, orange juice and oranges to the cleaner.

“If they’re out, I try to give them money but at the same time my company has to survive,” Crowley said. If the company goes down, nobody has work.”

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

Ingrid Villorio, who works at a Jack in the Box restaurant in Castro Valley, California, began feeling ill last March and soon tested positive for COVID. Villorio alerted a supervisor who did not tell him that he was eligible for paid sick leave as well as supplemental COVID leave under California law.

But Spanish-speaking Villorio said through a translator that the problems persist. That said, workers are still getting sick, and are often too afraid to speak up.

“Without our health, we cannot function,” she said. “We have been told that we are frontline workers, but we are not treated as such.”

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

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