A Hidden COVID-19 Risk Factor: Your Employer Policy on Paid Sick Leave

From today’s Atlantic Magazine:

When the coronavirus first hit the United States, some politicians referred to it as the “great equalizer” because it supposedly didn’t discriminate. But very soon, that proved not to be true. People of color are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, for example, and low-paid essential workers have little choice but to show up for work and expose themselves. And if employees do get sick, whether they receive sufficient paid time off to recover is another pandemic disparity. Although many workers have found that their bosses are understanding about time off, others have struggled to get paid leave to heal or to care for their children.

In March, I wrote about a Walmart employee in Washington State who was fired because he had used up all his attendance “points” recovering from what he believed was COVID-19, a situation Walmart declined to comment on. In April, a grocery-store employee in Indiana claimed she was fired for staying at home with a potential case of COVID-19. (She sued, and the case was settled.) A 58-year-old nursing-home worker in St. Louis kept coming to work long after she developed symptoms of COVID-19, because she was told she wouldn’t be paid otherwise, her family told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She died a few weeks ago.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. In March, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, making it easier for many American workers to receive paid leave if they get COVID-19, or if they have to care for children who are out of school. For the remainder of the year, employees are eligible for two weeks of paid sick leave if they are quarantined or experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, and 12 weeks of leave paid at two-thirds of their salary if they are caring for a child whose school or child-care provider is closed.

But the law excludes all sorts of employees. Large companies aren’t included in the law, and small companies can claim an exemption. Employers can supplement what’s required under the law with more expansive leave policies, but some companies are already ending the more generous leave policies that they put in place immediately after the coronavirus outbreak.

Our pandemic approach to sick leave is a continuation of America’s jumbled leave laws, in which your time off largely depends on your employer, not your needs. Because of this patchwork system, Americans are some of the only workers in the Western world who risk getting fired if they don’t drag their sick selves into work. Before the pandemic, a quarter of private-sector workers didn’t have a single paid sick day.

The inconsistent way that America does sick leave will become an even bigger problem as more states open up and companies ask their employees to return to the office. In the coming months, employers will wield remarkable power in determining whether their employees will be at risk of catching COVID-19, and whether they can keep their jobs if they do. As unemployment remains high and companies have more workers to choose from, more people may find themselves losing their jobs if they get sick.

Read the complete article here.