New York (CNN Business) — You might think that US store and restaurant workers who get COVID-19 are staying home to recover and keep the public safe.
But millions of frontline employees can’t do it without losing their pay. So many Americans, with precarious, low-paying jobs in the service sector, cannot stay home, even if they contract the virus or are exposed to someone who is infected.
Some workers have difficulty getting or paying for tests to confirm that they have been infected. Many do not have paid sick leave and need to keep up with their bills. And others fear facing repercussions from their bosses if they call in sick or feel added pressure to work due to severe staffing shortages.
The United States does not have national sick leave laws, unlike most industrialized countries, leaving wide gaps in access to paid sick leave, especially in service-sector jobs. In March 2021, 41% of service sector employees lacked paid sick leave, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to 23% of all private sector workers.
Jobs in the service sector are also often part-time, and those jobs are much less likely to include paid sick leave than full-time positions. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, part-time workers’ lower likelihood of having paid sick leave has a disproportionate impact on women, who are more likely than men to hold part-time jobs.
When an assistant manager at a Pandora jewelry store in Orlando, Florida, was exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19 in the last week of 2021, she had to miss work without pay because she didn’t have paid leave.
“It was a very tough week for me. It was very, very tough for me,” said the employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak publicly. “I can not be without work 5 days or a week without pay.”
Without paid sick leave, she worries whenever she begins to feel unwell. He has sent workers home after they got sick, and has felt guilty for doing so because he knew they would lose pay.
“When I get sick it’s like, ‘Oh, God, I have to pay my bills,'” she said.
A Pandora spokesman said the company offers 40 hours of paid sick leave to full-time employees a year. If a worker tests positive for COVID-19 or is quarantined, they can use their sick leave, vacation or personal time off. Franchises, like this assistant store manager’s in Orlando, set their own policies on paid sick leave, COVID-19 leave and other benefits.
Bill Thompson, a cook at a Burger King in Independence, Missouri, also has no paid sick leave. He worries about being exposed to co-workers who show up with covid-19 because they can’t afford a leave of absence. (Burger King franchise owners set paid sick leave and COVID-19 policies, a spokesman said.)
“I feel like I’m playing Russian roulette with my life by going to make burgers and fries for $11.15 an hour,” said Thompson, a member of Fight for $15, which advocates for stronger wages and benefits. for the workers.
Omicron and the skeleton staff
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic or the omicron variant emerged, the lack of paid sick leave and the service sector’s understaffing pattern caused economically insecure workers to work, despite being sick, Daniel Schneider said. , sociologist at Harvard University.
“Stores were understaffed for business reasons,” said Schneider, who is also co-director of The Shift Project, which studies tens of thousands of retail and fast-food workers at major chains.
The model often leaves workers wanting more hours and needing to look good with their bosses to get them, another reason workers may be reluctant to call in sick. The number of hours worked also often determines whether workers are entitled to healthcare and other benefits through their employers.
The pandemic and the Great Resignation phenomenon have compounded the problems created by a lack of paid sick leave for workers and pressure to work due to staff shortages.
Today, “workers don’t feel like they have more access to paid sick leave than they used to,” Schneider said. Also, “this staffing shortage thing has reached this crazy tipping point.”
About 65% of the 6,600 hourly workers who said they were sick for any reason, not just Covid-19, in the Shift Project surveys conducted between September and November, worked anyway.
When asked why, 55% said they needed the pay and 30% said it was because they didn’t have paid sick leave.
But staffing also influenced their decision to come to work sick. 45% said they didn’t want to let their co-workers down and 40% said they couldn’t find anyone to cover their shift.
Other workers worried that calling in sick would hurt their employment status: 44% of workers said they were afraid of getting in trouble for calling on the phone.
Isaac Pierce, a manager at a Vons supermarket in San Diego, California, said some of his co-workers come in with cough and cold symptoms. They act ignorant and say it’s not covid-19, but he has no way of knowing.
A few weeks ago, one of Pierce’s colleagues at Vons showed up for work days after testing positive for the virus. One of the employees protested that he was going back to work so soon, so the store sent him home.
Albertsons, the owner of Vons, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Losing pay or going to work sick
At the start of the pandemic, in March 2020, Congress passed legislation temporarily requiring employers with fewer than 500 workers and all public employers to provide up to two weeks of paid sick leave to workers who contract COVID or were awaiting test results and quarantine. It offered tax credits to help compensate employers for the expense.
Those benefits expired at the end of 2020, but the government continued to provide tax credits to employers who voluntarily chose to offer the benefit until October. The House of Representatives has approved President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better social spending package, which includes four weeks of paid family and medical leave, but the bill has stalled in the Senate.
Some big chains like Walmart, Amazon and others have also offered their employees paid sick leave for covid-19 during the pandemic. But these companies recently reduced the number of paid sick days they guarantee to employees who test positive for Covid-19. The changes follow updated recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that shorten isolation and quarantine times for the general public.
Even for workers at large companies who have access to paid COVID-19 leave, employees and worker advocates say it’s difficult to use the benefit after testing positive or waiting for test results.
Jim Araby, director of strategic campaigns for the United Food and Commercial Workers union in Northern California, said grocery store workers have to go through outside administrators to get their employers to approve paid COVID-19 leave. But administrative systems are “totally overwhelmed,” he said, and “not timely.”
“Workers end up losing pay or going to work sick,” Araby said. “It is clear that we do not have a social safety net that can deal with these problems.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism