As the COVID-19 omicron variant spreads across the country, millions of people who don’t have paid sick days are forced to choose between their health and their paycheck.
Even if omicron has managed to avoid the shots, several employers implemented more extensive sick leave policies at the start of the pandemic.
However, some of those rules have already been toned back with the distribution of the vaccines. Meanwhile, the current labor scarcity is adding to the pressure on employees who must choose whether or not to go to work unwell if they cannot afford to stay at home.
“It’s a vicious circle,” said Daniel Schneider, a Harvard Kennedy School of Government professor of public policy. “As personnel is diminished due to sick employees, those who remain on the job have more work to complete and are even more hesitant to call in sick when they become ill.”
Hourly employees with low wages are particularly vulnerable. According to a national pay study of employee benefits done by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics in March, nearly 80% of all private sector workers receive at least one paid sick day.
However, just 33% of workers in the lowest 10% of pay receive paid sick leave, compared to 95% in the top 10%.
According to Harvard’s Shift Project, which focuses on inequality, a poll of nearly 6,600 hourly low-wage workers performed this fall found that 65 percent of those who reported being unwell in the previous month went to work nevertheless.
That’s less than the 85% who reported to work sick before the pandemic, but it’s far more than it should be in the midst of a public health emergency.
Because of omicron and the labor scarcity, Schneider believes things might grow worse.
Schneider also pointed out that the percentage of workers who had paid sick leave prior to the pandemic scarcely changed throughout the epidemic, with 50 percent and 51 percent, respectively.
He went on to say that many of the working poor polled don’t even have $400 in emergency money, and that the expiration of the child tax credit, which had put a few hundred dollars in families’ pockets every month, will make things even worse.
The Associated Press spoke with one worker who began suffering COVID-like symptoms early this week after starting a new job with the state of New Mexico last month.
The employee, who wanted not to be identified for fear of jeopardizing their job, took a day off to be tested and another two days to wait for the findings.
A supervisor contacted and informed the employee that they would only be eligible for paid sick days if the COVID test was positive.
If the test is negative, the employee will be forced to work without pay for the days they have not yet accrued for sick leave.
“I thought I was doing the right thing by safeguarding my coworkers,” said the employee, who is still waiting for the results and believes that if they test negative, it will cost $160 each day of work missed. “Now I wish I hadn’t said anything and just went to work.”