US Service Workers Pressured to Keep Working While Positive for COVID-19

  • Employers are pressuring staff to keep working even when positive for COVID-19. 
  • One woman said she was “devastated” to be expected at work after a miscarriage and COVID-19. 
  • “Lack of paid sick leave and the profound level of economic insecurity is the status quo for most,” said an academic.

“We were literally told by management that unless we’re dead, we have to come to work. Showing any signs or symptoms of COVID-19 was not enough to justify staying at home and being safe” is how one retail worker described their employer’s attitude to the pandemic to The Shift Project.

Based at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, The Shift Project gathers data about working conditions for the approximately 25 million people employed in the US service sector.

As of January 28, more than 878,000 COVID-19-related deaths have been reported in the US since the pandemic began, according to John Hopkins University data. But even before the COVID-19 crisis hit, workers in the service industry were already in a “precarious position,” toiling for low pay and living paycheck to paycheck, without the safety net of sick pay if they became ill. According to Bureau of Labor data, 41% of service-sector employees are denied sick pay. 

Sick pay is essential to ensure people can work safely, Professor Kristen Harknett, cofounder of The Shift Project and an associate professor of sociology at the University of California San Francisco, told Insider.

“The lack of paid sick leave and the profound level of economic insecurity, that is just kind of the status quo for most of this workforce. That means that if you skip work, you’re foregoing pay at a minimum, and jeopardizing your job, potentially, as well,” Harknett said. 

Forced to work with COVID-19 and after a miscarriage

An employee who works as a medication dispenser at a large pharmacy chain, who asked not to be identified for fear of losing their job, told Insider that she tested positive for COVID-19 and had a miscarriage around the same time. Her manager was unsympathetic, insisting that she come to work because no one could cover her shift. After threatening to resign, she was allowed to take unpaid sick leave.

“Devastated doesn’t even sum up how I felt. I thought I was working with a company that cared about ‘health,’ as they promote it in their logos and advertising,” she said.

A woman clutches her stomach

A woman clutches her stomach

Catherine McQueen/Getty

“My body is going through a miscarriage and COVID-19 and somehow that didn’t matter,” she continued. “It was more important to them that someone would cover my closing shift. Emotionally and physically I was not OK.”

The employee cares for her two-year-old and works part-time. Her husband works full time but isn’t able to work from home. 

“I was not asking for any special treatment. I just wanted some empathy to get some time to be able to heal and be in a better state of mind,” she said.

A Shift Project survey of 6,600 hourly workers, polled from September to November 2021, found that nearly two-thirds of workers who reported being sick said they worked through the illness. People cited money worries as the top reason they worked while sick, followed by not wanting to let down coworkers and fear of reprisal, the Wall Street Journal reported.

A night auditor at a hotel in Flint, Michigan, told Insider that he was forced to go into work while he was still positive for COVID-19, and said his employer had “given up” on COVID-19 safety protocols for staff.

Hotel reception wearing covid-19 facemask

Hotel reception wearing covid-19 facemask

Jasmine Merdan/Getty Images

The employee said he came in early one day to take over a shift from a colleague who believed they had COVID-19. While they both wore masks and were “careful,” he believes he had already caught the virus from his coworker but had not started presenting symptoms. 

Two days after being in contact with his positive colleague, he tested positive. His employer told him to come back after just five days, even though he still tested positive for the virus. The manager told him there simply weren’t enough workers to cover shifts if people were out sick. 

“There is a giant reality that employers are intentionally understaffed because they’re trying to minimize labor costs. There isn’t a norm of having sufficient staffing,” Harknett said.

A court case in California recently took up the issue of a company prioritizing the interests of the business over workers’ health and found in favor of the employee. A California Court of Appeals ruled in January that Matilde Ek and her three daughters could sue her employer, See’s Candies, for damages when she contracted COVID-19 because the company failed to ensure safety in the workplace, Reuters reported.

Ek’s husband, Arturo, 72, subsequently caught the virus and died. 

Ek, who worked at a packing plant in Carson, California, claimed that plant employees complained to supervisors about the conditions, as did the employees’ union, according to Law 360.

“Defendants knew and should have known that their failure to take appropriate and necessary mitigation measures would increase the known and foreseeable risk that their workers, like the plaintiff, would become infected in the course and scope of their work … and carry said viral infection home, infecting one or more of their family members,” the lawsuit read.

The Great Resignation

The Great Resignation has hit the US labor market as a byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic. Jerome Ternynck, the CEO of the hiring platform SmartRecruiters, told Insider’s Britney Nguyen that “the pandemic has reset people’s purpose in life,” and they are no longer willing to put up with poor working conditions.

Leisure and hospitality staff are some of the lowest paid workers in the country.

Leisure and hospitality staff are some of the lowest paid workers in the country.

Chart: Madison Hoff/Insider. Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics

In November 2021, the most recent month for which the Bureau of Labor Statistics released data, 4.5 million workers quit their jobs, led by low-wage workers, with a record-breaking 1 million leisure and hospitality workers leaving their jobs.

Kevin Reuning, an assistant professor of political science at Miami University, believes that service-sector staff are often seen by employer as “replaceable” vessels for providing labor — not as people with vulnerabilities and  responsibilities being forced to work through a dangerous global pandemic.

Maribel Cornejo, a McDonald’s worker and leader with the Fight for $15 in Houston, is hoping this will change as the workplace evolves because of the pandemic. “It’s time for employers to realize that it’s frontline workers like us who keep the doors open,” Cornejo told Insider. “And if they want us to keep showing up they need to respect us, protect us, and pay us what we deserve.” 

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