Like many things, the coronavirus is exposing the disproportionate impacts that disease has on those with the least in our country. “Just stay home if you’re sick” is much easier said than done.
The ability to stay home when you are sick is heavily dependent on whether your employer offers paid sick leave. Across West Virginia, over 250,000 workers, nearly half of the state’s private-sector workforce, lacks paid sick days as a work benefit. These workers are generally front-line, low-wage workers, and are disproportionately people of color. Nationally, 93 percent of managers compared with just 46 percent of service workers, have paid sick leave benefits.
Our current system is almost designed to spread diseases like coronavirus. Service workers, among the least likely to have paid sick days, are also among those most likely to be impacted by the spread of communicable disease. There is no teleworking and no way to avoid people if you work in food service, child care, home health or retail. Those in service industry jobs already face low pay, few benefits, lack of health insurance and irregular schedules.
Even if one doesn’t risk losing her job altogether by calling off work due to illness (many low-wage workers don’t even have access to unpaid leave), losing a day’s pay could make it impossible to pay rent or buy groceries. And if the unpaid day off also involves a doctor’s visit with a copay or the full cost of the visit – since many of these same workers lack health insurance- the costs of a job with few benefits balloon out from there.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar recently cautioned that “we might have to take community mitigation efforts” to address the coronavirus. In addition to the precautions being taken by health officials at the local, state, and national levels, “social distancing” is a public health strategy of stopping or slowing down the spread of a highly contagious disease. It involves limiting large groups of people coming together in public, something nearly impossible for a service sector worker to do without job-protected time off. The only way to make sure that employees can comply with the public health response needed to address the coronavirus is by guaranteeing paid sick leave for all workers.
No one should have to choose between staying home when they’re sick and losing their livelihood. And even if you don’t agree with the principle, the health of our communities is intertwined with those who have the least. None of us are safe from communicable disease when anyone in our community lacks basic access to paid sick leave. Outbreaks like the coronavirus magnify the need, but it’s always been there – with the flu for example, where research shows jurisdictions with guaranteed paid sick days have 11 percent fewer flu cases.
While the state Legislature has wrapped up for the year, municipalities around the state have the legal authority to pass ordinances requiring paid sick leave for workers within their jurisdictions. Across the country, 42 jurisdictions including Pittsburgh have done just this. There is no reason for cities around the state to delay implementing paid sick days policies, which have been proven to benefit workers, employers, the economy, and our communities. It’s an urgent public health issue.
Kelly Allen is Director of Policy Engagement and Interim Deputy Director at West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.