Staying home or going to work sick with COVID-19?

As the omicron variant of the coronavirus infects workers across the United States, millions have to choose between their health and their pay.

While many companies instituted stronger sick leave policies at the beginning of the pandemic, some have been reduced since then with the advent of vaccines. Meanwhile, the staff shortage is adding to pressure from workers who have to decide whether to report to work sick, if they cannot afford to stay home.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” said Daniel Schneider, a professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “As staff is depleted because people are sick, that means those who are at work have more to do and are even more reluctant to report sick when they do get sick.”

Low-income workers are especially vulnerable. About 80% of all private sector workers get at least one paid sick day, according to a March survey by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. But only 33% of workers whose wages are in the bottom 10% have paid sick leave, compared with 95% in the top 10%.

A survey last fall of about 6,600 low-wage hourly workers by Harvard’s Project Shift, which focuses on inequality, found that 65% of workers who reported being ill in the past month went to work for everyone. modes. That’s less than the 85% who reported to work sick before the pandemic, but much higher than it should be in the midst of a public health crisis. Schneider says this could be made worse by omicron and a labor shortage.

Additionally, Schneider noted that the proportion of workers on paid sick leave before the pandemic barely moved during the pandemic – from 50% to 51%, respectively. He also added that many of the working poor surveyed do not even have an emergency fund.

The Associated Press interviewed a worker who started a new job in the state of New Mexico last month and began experiencing COVID-19-like symptoms earlier in the week. The worker, who asked not to be identified because it could endanger his job, took a day off to take the test and two more days to wait for the results.

A supervisor called and told the worker that he would qualify for paid sick days only if the test came back positive; if it is negative, the employee will have to take the days without pay, since he has not accumulated days of work to request sick leave.

“I thought I was doing the right thing by protecting my coworkers,” said the interviewee, who is still waiting for the results and estimates that it will cost him $ 160 per lost work day if he tests negative. “Now I wish I had gone to work and said nothing.”

For its part, Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, is cutting pandemic-related paid leave in half from two weeks to one, after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention slashed fees. Isolation requirements for people who have no symptoms after testing positive.

On the federal front, the movement has stalled. Congress passed a law in spring 2020 that requires most employers to provide paid sick leave to employees with coronavirus-related illnesses. But the requirement expired on December 31 of that same year. Congress later extended the tax credits for employers who voluntarily provide paid sick leave, but the extension expired at the end of September, according to the Labor Department.