Many of Trece Andrews’ coworkers contracted COVID-19 at the Detroit-area nursing home, Regency St. Clair Shores, where she works. Two residents in the home have died from the disease, she said.
But Andrews, 49, keeps coming to work. She and her colleagues don’t have much choice: The home doesn’t offer paid sick leave.
“Some people come in knowing they don’t feel good. You have administrative staff threatening to fire people if they don’t report to work,” she said. “It’s been very challenging. Very scary.”
It seems obvious that during a pandemic, at whatever stage, workers who feel sick should stay home — especially those working in high-risk situations, like in nursing homes or hospitals. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has consistently told Americans that not going to work when you feel sick is essential to slowing the spread of the disease.
And yet. Millions of essential workers are going without paid sick leave in this pandemic. In fact, the paid sick leave law that Congress passed in March to deal with coronavirus leaves out 4 in 10 workers: a total of 69.4 million Americans, according to a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation released last week. That includes an astonishing 17.7 million health care workers, like Andrews, who are either excluded or exempted from the law.
Ciena Healthcare, the parent company of Regency St. Clair Shores, did not respond to requests to comment on its paid leave policy.
Seventy-five percent of those health care workers are women, and about a third are women of color. Andrews, who is Black, said that most of her coworkers at the home are also people of color.
Andrews is a union steward with SEIU Healthcare Michigan, part of a coalition in Michigan and nationwide that is demanding protections for nursing home workers ― including paid sick days, hazard pay, free COVID-19 testing and living wages.
Their concerns are life and death.
More than 50,000 nursing home residents and workers have died from coronavirus, so far, according to an estimate in The Wall Street Journal. That’s about 40% of all COVID-19 related deaths.
At least 100 grocery store workers have died since March, according to a Washington Post analysis released last month. Amazon and Walmart workers have died. At least 20 meatpacking workers had died from coronavirus as of last month, and thousands more were infected, according to the CDC.
Part of the issue are policies that encourage workers to come in by tying bonuses to attendance — essentially, the opposite of what a good paid sick leave policy would do.
Other employers like Walmart and McDonald’s have crafted coronavirus sick leave policies that seem generous, but are difficult to use if you can’t see a doctor or get a positive test for the virus. Some employers, like Amazon, have offered workers unpaid leave if they wish to stay home ― or extra money if they come in to work.
While there’s no hard data to show that a lack of access to paid sick leave has led to an increase in infections or deaths from the disease, we do know that access to paid sick leave does help reduce the spread of other illnesses ― like the flu.
As the country opens back up — even as cases increase in certain places — it’s more important than ever to have paid sick leave for essential workers. If governments and businesses want people to feel safe back out in stores, restaurants and movie theaters, there should be a degree of confidence that if workers are sick, they’re not coming to work.
So far, there’s little reason anyone should feel that confidence.
A strong paid sick leave policy at the federal level could have helped. The sick leave law passed in March as part of the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act initially seemed groundbreaking. It was the first federal policy requiring that Americans get any kind of sick leave — in this case, it was up to 80 hours paid time off if a worker comes down with coronavirus or needs to quarantine.
But it was riddled with exemptions and loopholes, the result of pressure from big businesses, Republicans and the White House.
First, only a very narrow band of companies are required to comply with the law. Workers at companies with more than 500 employees aren’t eligible, which adds up to about 50% of the workforce. Companies with fewer than 50 employees can also be exempted from some requirements of the law.
The pandemic breakout changed everything. It should’ve changed things for everybody. Us nursing home workers, we’ve been put to the back burner. But we are the essential workers. We’re dealing with the COVID.
Also exempt? Health care workers, who are considered essential during the crisis. And the Labor Department has been very broad in defining who is called a health care worker ― not only doctors and nurses, but low-paid employees like hospital janitors, pharmacy clerks and nursing home assistants like Andrews.
Meanwhile, even workers who are eligible might not know about these benefits, as the Labor Department has done very little outreach.
“The Department of Labor has done nothing to get the word out. They’ve not really prioritized making people aware. Millions of people don’t know they might be eligible for paid leave,” said Debra Ness, the president of the National Partnership for Women and Families.
While some health care facilities do offer a limited amount of paid sick leave to workers, it’s typically far short of the amount of time that would be needed to recover from the coronavirus, as the Kaiser report points out. At most companies, paid time off needs to be accrued, which is not a possibility for every worker.
We call these workers essential, but we don’t pay or support them to reflect that, Ness said. “We treat them as expendables. In every way. Lack of paid sick days. Lack of paid leave. Lack of protective equipment. Lack of paying them enough money to live on.”
Last month, the House passed the HEROES act, which would close the loopholes on paid sick leave and expand the policy. The Republican-led Senate is unlikely to take up the legislation.
Andrews earns $15.85 an hour, up from the $8 she made when she started at the home 20 years ago, but hardly enough to build up a cushion of savings. She has a 13-year-old daughter, and she’s also taking care of her 73-year-old father. As things stand now, she can’t afford health insurance for her daughter.
Andrews said they still don’t get proper personal protective equipment at the home, and that she has to buy her own masks.
The nursing home does screen workers each day by taking their temperature, and a few have been sent home — without pay, Andrews said.
She is fired up now to fight with her union for stronger benefits.
“The pandemic breakout changed everything. It should’ve changed things for everybody,” she said. “Us nursing home workers, we’ve been put to the back burner. But we are the essential workers. We’re dealing with the COVID. It’s really putting us in the front lines.”
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