You may think that store and restaurant workers in America who catch Covid-19 are staying home to recover and keep the public safe.
But millions of frontline employees aren’t able to do that without missing a paycheck. So, many Americans, working precarious, low-wage jobs in the service industry, can’t stay home — even if they come down with the virus or are exposed to someone who’s been infected.
Some workers are struggling to get or afford testing to confirm they have been infected. Many don’t have paid sick leave and need to keep up with their bills. And others fear they will face repercussions from their bosses if they call out sick or feel added pressure to work because of severe staffing shortages.
The United States does not have national paid sick laws, unlike most industrialized countries, leaving wide gaps in paid sick leave access, especially in service sector jobs. In March 2021, 41% of service sector employees lacked paid sick leave, according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data, compared with 23% of all private sector workers.
Jobs in the service industry are also frequently part time, and those jobs are far less likely to include paid sick leave than full-time positions. The lower likelihood of paid sick leave for part-timers has a disproportionate impact on women, who are more likely than men to hold part-time jobs, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation
When an assistant store manager at a Pandora jewelry store in Orlando, Florida, was exposed to someone who tested positive for Covid-19 the final week of 2021, she had to miss work without pay because she didn’t have paid leave.
“That was a tough week for me. That was really, really tough for me,” said the employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak publicly. “I can’t be out of work for 5 days or a week without being paid.”
Without paid sick leave, she worries every time she starts to feel sick. She has sent workers home after they came in sick — and felt guilty for doing so because she knew they’d miss pay.
“When I feel sick it’s like, ‘Oh god, I really need to pay my bills,’” she said.
A Pandora spokesperson said the company offers 40 hours of paid sick leave to full-time employees a year. If a worker tests positive for Covid-19 or is quarantining, they can use paid sick, vacation or personal PTO. Franchise stores, like the one where this assistant store manager works in Orlando, sets their own policies on paid sick leave, Covid-19 leave and other benefits.
Bill Thompson, a cook at a Burger King in Independence, Missouri, also doesn’t have paid sick leave. He worries about being exposed to co-workers who are showing up with Covid-19 because they can’t afford to take off. (Burger King franchise owners set paid sick and Covid-19 leave policies, a spokesperson said.)
“I feel like I’m playing Russian roulette with my life going in to make hamburgers and fries for $11.15 an hour,” said Thompson, a member of Fight for $15, which advocates for stronger wages and benefits for workers.
Omicron and skeleton staffing
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic or Omicron variant emerged, the lack of paid sick leave and the service sector’s short-staffing model caused economically insecure workers to work, despite being sick, said Daniel Schneider, a sociologist at Harvard University.
“Stores ran short staffed as a matter of business,” said Schneider, who is also the co-director of The Shift Project, which surveys tens of thousands of retail and fast food workers at top chains.
The model often leaves workers hungry for more hours and needing to stay in their managers’ good graces to get them — another reason why workers can be hesitant to call out sick. The number of hours worked also often determines whether workers qualify for health care and other benefits through their employers.
The pandemic and Great Resignation phenomenon have worsened the problems created by the lack of paid sick leave for workers and pressure to work due to skeleton staffing levels.
Today, “workers don’t feel like they have any more access to paid sick leave than they ever do,” Schneider said. Additionally, “this short-staffing issue has reached this crazy tipping point.”
Around 65% of the 6,600 hourly workers who reported being sick for any reason, not just Covid-19, in Shift Project surveys taken September through November worked anyway.
When asked the reasons why they did so, 55% of them said they needed the pay and 30% said it was because they didn’t have paid sick leave.
But staffing also impacted their decisions to come into work sick. Forty-five percent said they didn’t want to let down their co-workers and 40% said they couldn’t find anyone to cover their shift.
Other workers worried calling out sick would hurt their job status: forty-four percent of workers said they were afraid that they’d get in trouble for calling out.
Isaac Pierce, a grocery manager at a Vons supermarket in San Diego, California, said some of his co-workers are coming in with coughs and cold symptoms. They “play it off” and say it’s not Covid-19, but there’s no way for him to know.
A few weeks ago, one of Pierce’s co-workers at Vons showed up to work days after testing positive for the virus. One of the employees protested that he was back working so soon, so the store sent him back home.
Albertsons, the owner of Vons, did not immediately respond to request for comment.
‘Losing pay or going to work sick’
At the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, Congress passed legislation temporarily requiring employers with fewer than 500 workers and all public employers to provide up to two weeks of paid sick leave to workers who contracted Covid or were waiting for test results and quarantining. It offered tax credits to help compensate employers for the expense.
Those benefits expired at the end of 2020, but the government continued to provide tax credits to employers who voluntarily chose to offer the benefit through October. The House passed President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better social spending package, which includes four weeks of paid family and medical leave, but the bill has stalled in the Senate.
Some large chains such as Walmart (WMT), Amazon (AMZN) and others have also offered employees paid Covid-19 sick leave throughout the pandemic. But these companies have recently reduced the number of paid sick days they are guaranteeing to employees who test positive for Covid-19. The changes follow updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations shortening isolation and quarantine times for the general public.
Even for workers at large employers who do have access to paid Covid-19 leave, employees and labor advocates say it’s difficult to use the benefit after testing positive or waiting for test results.
Jim Araby, director of strategic campaigns for the United Food and Commercial Workers’ union in Northern California, said that grocery workers have to go through third-party administrators to get Covid-19 paid leave approved from their employers. But the administrative systems are “totally overwhelmed,” he said, and “not timely.”
“Workers either end up losing pay or going to work sick,” Araby said. “Clearly we don’t have a social safety net that can deal with these issues.”