The pandemic has only deepened existing fault lines of class, race, and gender oppression. The ubiquity of the coronavirus has highlighted these structural inequalities, producing disparate effects on different populations. “Essential workers” were briefly lauded as “heroes” last year. Many of these workers, essential to maintaining community health and sustenance during a pandemic, would not typically receive paid sick days themselves.
Some people talk about the United States lagging behind other “developed countries” when it comes to offering paid sick leave, but this actually undersells the problem. 93% of all countries offer paid sick leave to all workers (P.R.I.). The U.S., both the richest and most inequitable country in the world (N.Y. Times), is part of the 7% which fails to do so. The United States also fails to mandate paid parental leave, unlike countries such as Germany, Mexico, and Niger. And U.S. workers aren’t required to receive paid vacation days. In contrast, workers in Algeria receive about a month every year. (Yahoo! News). The U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act mandates that employers provide unpaid leave for certain conditions but leaves out common diseases like the flu. This excludes millions of workers who are new hires or employees of small businesses (Department of Labor).
Since employers in the United States aren’t required to provide any paid sick leave to their employees, many do not. About 32 million workers have no sick leave whatsoever, with less lucrative jobs less likely to offer sick days (Pew). Such workers are three times more likely to forgo medical care than those who would be paid during their absence (Health Affairs).
The absence of mandatory paid sick leave means people have to choose between working while sick or missing pay and potentially putting their job at risk. 63% of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck, and almost half were spending beyond their means even before COVID (CNBC). For many, the choice between working while sick and losing income by calling out is no choice at all. Out of economic necessity, they are forced to risk worsening their own health and the health of coworkers or customers.
One survey found that 90% of office workers go into work while ill, with 33% reporting that they never call out sick (Robert Half). 12% of food service workers said they’ve worked while experiencing vomiting or diarrhea (CDC). Companies like Instacart and DoorDash promised COVID sick time for delivery drivers, but in practice, it was “onerous” to even apply (CNET). Since gig workers get paid by the job, some were seen wading through waste-deep sewage water (Gothamist) to deliver food as the remnants of Hurricane Ida flooded NYC (USA Today). All in all, a pre-COVID survey found that 39% of workers went to work with flu-like symptoms (N.Y. Times). And though the federal government provided paid sick leave for workers with COVID, few knew it existed (US News).
And when companies do offer paid sick leave, it’s often inadequate. Many times, workers receive just a handful of days each year (Yahoo! News). Paid Time Off (PTO) policies, which combine vacation and sick days, ensure that employees with medical conditions receive less vacation time than their colleagues (USA Today). Other companies offer inadequate sick leave but allow employees to “donate” sick days to a coworker, leading one Florida teacher to go viral for begging his coworkers for sick days to finish chemotherapy (MarketWatch).
The result? A “near-guarantee that workers will defy public health warnings and trudge into their workplaces, regardless of symptoms” (Inverse). Low-wage jobs where people of color are overrepresented are the least likely to offer paid sick leave, compounding with other racial disparities in health and healthcare (CDC).
Every worker should accrue paid time to recover from illness as a condition of employment. Unionized workers are dramatically more likely to receive paid sick leave than non-union workers. Sick leave and employer-provided health insurance, which union workers almost universally receive (Pew, EPI), are often priorities when unions fight for concessions from employers. Scores of organizations like the NAACP are calling for federal legislation to mandate sick leave for all employees (NAACP), while other focus on just sick leave policies at the state and local levels. Workers shouldn’t have to choose between a paycheck and their health.
93% of countries mandate paid sick leave for employees. The U.S. does not.
Because of this, nine out of ten U.S. workers work while sick.
Local, state, and federal initiatives, along with workplace organizing, bring us closer to universal paid sick leave.