Bereft of Paid Sick Leave, Millions of Ill Americans Are Forced to Work With COVID-19 - Report
The US is almost unique among industrialized nations in refusing its population paid days off for when they’re sick - a condition US President Joe Biden’s foundered social spending bill would have addressed.
In the last 10 days, 7.6 million new COVID-19 cases have been detected in the United States. Before mid-December, that’s the time period for which the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would have required Americans to quarantine once they test positive for COVID-19 - a practice intended to limit the spread of the highly contagious virus.
Having no national paid leave program, Americans have long worked sick despite better wisdom telling them to stay home in bed. However, the shift in US health policy motivated two of the country’s largest employers - Walmart and Amazon - to follow suit and halve the paid sick leave they offered their employees from two weeks to just one.
According to surveys conducted by research group The Shift Project, between September and November, roughly 65% of surveyed workers who reported being sick for any reason - not just COVID-19 - went to work despite their illness. When asked why, 55% said they couldn’t sacrifice the paycheck and 30% said they didn’t have paid sick leave.
Indeed, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 41% of services sector employees and 23% of all private sector workers have no paid sick leave at all.
A 2019 survey by the multinational bank Charles Schwab found that 59% of Americans were one paycheck away from homelessness, and 44% carry a credit card balance - powerful motivators for workers to keep working.
Still, a record number of Americans reported not working in recent weeks due to being sick with COVID-19 or caring for someone who was. According to data from the Census Bureau, between December 29 and January 10, roughly 8.8 million workers stayed home, further exacerbating an already sharp labor shortage in what some media outlets began calling “the great American sickout.” The numbers only hint at how many went to work sick in that period.
“Unfortunately, the biggest issue about omicron is it’s no longer just fear of contagion and aversion to in-person activity, but it’s actually causing acute labor shortages from the sheer number of people who are out sick,” Diane Swonk, an economist at accounting firm Grant Thornton, told the Washington Post on Thursday.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, the US and most other countries initiated massive social lockdowns on the model of China’s response to the outbreak in Wuhan. However, their capitalist systems were unable to withstand the interruption in production and their governments were unwilling to provide the extensive social support for weeks on end that the Chinese method found necessary to totally interrupt the virus’ spread. As the US economy saw its biggest drop since the Great Depression, millions lost their jobs and the US leadership committed itself to never repeating the experience, meaning workers would have to keep working through every wave of the pandemic that followed.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, passed in March 2020, provided funding for COVID-19 testing, food stamps, and most importantly 14 days of paid sick leave for all US workers via a tax credit for their employers - but also dependent on the employer accepting it. By October of that year, the provision was found to have definitely “helped flatten the curve,” a phrase at the time used to mean it had limited the number of new cases.
The tax break expired at the end of 2020, but was extended until September 30, 2021, by the same law that extended many other similar pandemic-era protections: the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). However, like those other programs, the new Biden administration allowed them to expire, depriving millions of American workers of essential protections from the economic consequences of the pandemic even as the Delta variant, and now the Omicron variant, swept across the country.
The Build Back Better Act, Biden’s massive social spending bill that was an agglomeration of several much larger proposals made earlier in 2021, included 4 weeks of annual federal paid family and medical leave for workers in the $1.75 trillion form it passed the House in mid-November. However, unable to woo the right-wing members of his own party in the Senate, Biden’s bill has foundered and now seems unlikely to be revived.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has defended her agency’s decision to halve quarantine times, telling the Boston Globe on Wednesday that it was based on the Food and Drug Administration’s guidance that rapid tests are best used “as a qualitative test, not a quantitative test.”
While seeming to admit the decision was a mistake, the CDC chief added that "it's easy to criticize what's there - it's not obvious to provide the alternative."
"We're making decisions in imperfect times, sometimes without all the data that we would like to make them," she said. “If we waited for all the data we wanted on Omicron, the surge would have passed.”
“When there’s a public health crisis, the public health agency is partly responsible,” Walensky added. “The CDC alone can’t fix this public health crisis.”