Opinion | Omicron Reveals the Need for Better Sick Leave

On a recent Thursday, my wife and daughter tested positive for the coronavirus (despite my wife’s getting a negative test the day before). I felt fine, but I stayed home from work and spent the weekend in the house tending to my isolating family members. By early Sunday morning, my throat felt sore. I tested negative, but stayed home from work on Monday even though I tested negative again that day. On Tuesday, I was positive.

I suspected I had Covid-19 as soon as my symptoms started; I was living with people who had it. The negative tests weren’t reassuring. They were aids in decision making, but not the only data points that mattered.

A negative rapid antigen test means you are not contagious with the coronavirus at the moment you took the test. It does not guarantee that you won’t be infectious a short time after. People should stay home when they’re feeling sick no matter what is causing their illness. This was supposed to be the new post-pandemic norm. Unfortunately, too few do, and that’s a major reason we’re seeing the virus spread right now.

Many Americans have already stayed home far more than they would have liked to the last two years. Proms and commencements and weddings have resumed, and few want to miss another milestone because of a runny nose, especially if they get a negative rapid test.

But more important, many might like to stay home, but can’t.

Too many people can’t afford to miss another day of work. Even if sick leave policies became more generous at the beginning of the pandemic, those days are over for most. Fewer people can work from home now. Even fewer can keep asking to miss work because they have some mild symptoms that may or may not be Covid.

The United States is the only wealthy country in the world that does not guarantee paid sick days or sick leave to workers. According to a 2020 report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, some countries (Canada, France, Italy and Japan) have government insurance systems that provide benefits to workers even when they have short-term illnesses. Other countries, like Greece, Ireland and Spain, mandate employer protections in addition to government insurance. Still more (Denmark, Finland, France, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) have paid leave through collective bargaining arrangements.

Some countries are more generous than others. If a person gets Covid, or another illness, in Switzerland or Australia, then they are guaranteed to receive a full 10 days of paid sick leave. In the Netherlands, they’re guaranteed seven. In Japan, just under five; in France, between three and four; and in Britain, just over one.

Only in the United States are we not guaranteed any paid days off.

Of course, just because companies aren’t mandated to offer paid leave doesn’t mean that some don’t provide it. The reason I was able to stay home was because my employer is quite generous with its paid time off. Many Americans are not so lucky.

While most workers have some sick leave, it’s woefully insufficient. The median number of paid days off each year is seven. One in five workers has fewer than five days a year. Such workers have full-time jobs, though. Many Americans work part time, or hourly, and have no paid sick leave at all. Even states and cities that have regulations mandating some paid sick leave usually focus on companies of a certain size and workers with a certain number of hours at the job.

Those who are the least well-off financially, those who have the greatest difficulty obtaining health care, those who are the most likely to be at risk for Covid complications are often those who lack this benefit. This is especially true in minority communities.

And research confirms that workers without paid sick leave are more likely to go to work when they are sick.

This is the situation for adults. Sick children are even more difficult to handle. It’s one thing to take off work for yourself if you’re ill. It’s much harder to take time off to stay home with an ill child. Fewer than one-quarter of workers have any type of paid family leave. While some may point to the Family Medical Leave Act, it offers only unpaid time off and requires arduous paperwork completion for approval, including a physician’s attestation of why a worker’s presence is necessary to care for a family member.

If you have more than one child, the chance you’ll need to take time off repeatedly increase, not to mention the fact that parents often get sick from the children they are caring for. The dreaded “rolling Covid” diagnoses within families can often result in more than five to 10 days off for parents as they care for themselves and their kids in succession.

Young children are sick all the time, sadly. Studies show that kids can spend more than three months out of their first three years infected and ill. That’s more sick leave time than almost any parent has. School-age children are also likely to have many colds a year, and each one could be Covid.

Because kids are symptomatic more than adults, keeping them home each time they have a symptom that could possibly be Covid would likely be detrimental to their education. That’s all the more reason to focus on other protective measures in schools, like high-quality ventilation, ubiquitous and repeated testing and certainly masking when kids have symptoms. Doing so would take a great burden off parents and provide them with other lines of defense to prevent their kids from getting and spreading infections. In most locations, none of this happening.

This pandemic isn’t close to over, and it’s not the last one we will face. Going out while you are symptomatic, even when you have a negative rapid test, is dangerous to others. Going to work ill isn’t a show of strength, it’s a sign of a sick system.

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