By Jessica Semler
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
It would seem the coronavirus fear has reached a fever pitch. Disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer and face masks have flown off the shelves. On March 6, Gov. Tom Wolf signed an emergency disaster declaration after the two presumptive positive cases of coronavirus were confirmed. Roughly 4,000 folks in New York have been quarantined, and… umm, coronavirus porn is now a thing.
During this state of panic, I spent over a week sick on the couch. Hours of feverish chills, waking up soaked in sweat, and coughing non stop. Walking the distance to the bathroom from the couch was utterly exhausting, and I’d be in and out of sleep for several hours. My workplace was very understanding. I had plenty of sick days available, and when I touched base with my supervisors throughout the week, they were clear that I needed to stay home until I was well for my own sake but also the health of my coworkers. I am acutely aware of how damned lucky I am that these were my circumstances.
I physically couldn’t have gone to work, even if I had wanted to. In between chugs of Nyquil and blowing my nose for the millionth time, I kept thinking of jobs I’ve had where this wasn’t the case. During my first year back in Pittsburgh, I served at a restaurant full time, and part time for a few years after that. There were no paid sick days. Calling off, especially for multiple days, would mean getting fired. There were many times when me or my coworkers came to work feeling like death warmed over, spewing germs everywhere, because we had to. Not going to work meant not making the money we needed for our rent, bills, cars, gas, food, etc.
With the fear of coronavirus in full effect, there is guidance everywhere from the CDC, WHO and more on how to protect yourself. Folks are uniformly advised to stay home if they are feeling sick. What none of these guidelines address is that our society isn’t economically or culturally equipped for people to do what they need to to stay healthy. I put out a call for folks in my network to share about their experiences with being sick in the workplace, and while there were some outliers, the responses painted an alarming picture. This is a structural issue.
Many people lack access to affordable healthcare:
Even many folks with health insurance provided through their employer can’t afford to go to the doctor, and that’s not a mistake. In January, I attended a training for newly elected officials about Public Sector HR Management. The presenter (who works for a union-busting firm) told my cohort that “offering healthcare plans with low copays to employees is encouraging bad behaviors.” What bad behaviors? Like actively seeking healthcare when they are in need of it?
A friend who works in a healthcare center told me about a coworker who needed to bring in a doctor’s excuse after missing two days of work, and then overdrew her bank account when she tried to pay the copay. Now think about all of the servers and bartenders who make the minimum wage of $2.83 as tipped workers. Per another friend, who is currently working in the service industry, “I can’t afford to lose the money, let alone pay upwards of $50 for a doctor’s note.”
“In order to have your sick days excused while working at the scheduling center we were REQUIRED to bring a doctors note. Urgent care appointments through work insurance was $70 which was about 3/4 of a day’s pay. It wasn’t financially feasible to take a sick day.” – Healthcare Worker, Nonprofit Sector.
Employers often penalize employees formally for calling in sick in the form of demerits, write ups, or firing:
“As a nurse, if the manager was there, you had to talk to them. The first thing my manager said was ‘you know this will be an occurrence.’ We can’t call off more than 3 times in a year because then it’ll be a verbal warning. Calling off always counts against you. Picking up hours never counts for you, in regards to ‘an occurrence”. A nurse got sick at work, was admitted through the ER, and later the manager gave her ‘an occurrence!’ She continued, ‘If that’s what they do to people with a BSN or FNP or MD after their name, can you imagine how awful it is for the technical and service workers?’” – Nurse, Case Manager.
“I hate calling off because they threaten to fire me, ask for a doctors note (they don’t provide my health insurance, so that’s a ridiculous request) and act super put out even though I have no paid time off there anyway.” – Restaurant Server.
“I got hurt on the job at the hospital. I went to the ER and came back with a sling on and a pulled rotator. My Unit Director said, ‘well what about work?’ I knew they didn’t care. I wasn’t paid worker’s comp because I refused to go back to work the very next day.” Healthcare Worker, Public Sector.
Employers penalizing employees informally in the form of comments or behavior:
“They’d tell me I have to find someone to come in for me. If I didn’t show up I’d probably get points against me or penalized with less shifts in the following weeks.” – Server.
“I wouldn’t be penalized, but they would definitely make me feel bad and/or make me find my replacement.” – Social Worker.
“The message was loud and clear that if you took sick days you were not a team player and you are probably lazy and just not as committed to the cause as you should be.” – Healthcare Worker, Nonprofit Sector.
“When I worked at 7-11, it was almost like you were personally out to destroy the business if you called off.” – Former 7-11 Employee.
Many employers don’t offer paid sick time:
“When I was a barista, I definitely worked when I shouldn’t have, based on how ill I was at times. But when I lived alone, I had to suck it up to stay afloat.” – Former Barista.
“If I don’t work, I don’t get paid.” – University Worker.
“We can’t afford to call off. Ever. I mean we live on such a tight budget…really not a budget in any sense since we don’t make enough to save any money. A day off of work for us means a short paycheck which means we don’t meet our obligations.” – Postal Worker.
Capitalist culture equates people’s worth with their productivity:
“I feel uncomfortable calling off. I feel like it’s been ingrained in us as a society that by doing so, you’re “letting down the team.” – Sales Associate
“Our society normalizes working through illnesses as some sort of prized achievement.. There have been times I’ve taken or needed sick time, and have felt really bad about it.” – Program Manager.
The City of Pittsburgh’s Paid Sick Days legislation goes into effect March 15th, but given the other factors above, will people feel empowered to use it when they need to?
Notice a pattern here? People that work in the healthcare and service industries have the least leniency when it comes to staying home sick. The people serving us food, and taking care of us when we’re sick, aren’t able to take care of themselves without losing their jobs or putting themselves in precarious financial situations. Our culture tells us that going to work when we’re sick is a badge of honor, showing how dedicated we are to our jobs. A contracted white collar worker told me “I can’t afford to call off, even if I had the courage to. The stress gets so bad I’m clenching my jaw when I sleep. Late capitalism is bullshit.”
This isn’t the fault of individuals who can’t afford to stay home. These circumstances are baked into the economic system that holds profits over people, even when this puts all of us at risk.
So wash your hands. Rest when you can, and consider supporting the only presidential candidate left who is fighting for affordable healthcare for all.