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There’s a Looming Workplace Crisis. Employers Don’t Care.

Slate logo Slate 7/18/2022 Alison Green
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus. © Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.

Nearly two and a half years into a pandemic that has transformed many people’s work lives, companies still haven’t figured out how to manage COVID-related sick leave.

American workers, who historically have been offered five to 10 paid sick days per year—if they’re allotted sick time at all—have found, unsurprisingly, that’s just not adequate right now. A single bout of COVID can knock out all of someone’s sick days for the year. That leaves many more months to get through where other illness or injury might arise (to say nothing of time people might need for long COVID, or kids who are sick with COVID or quarantined from day care). The latest COVID variants, which are driving a wave of reinfections, will only make things worse. But many employers haven’t adjusted their sick leave policies to fit that reality.

The problem is further compounded for the large number of people who switched jobs this year, which often means they don’t yet have sick leave accrued when they need it. (That itself is an additional shortcoming in the way we handle benefits; illnesses don’t hold off just because you’re new to a company.) This has caused problems for multiple people who have contacted me, like this one:

I recently came down with COVID. I let my supervisor know, explaining I’d need a few days off to sleep it off before I’m able to work again. (It’s a WFH job, so the two weeks isolation wouldn’t directly interfere with work.) Despite being salaried and having benefits, I was told that since I have only worked there for two months, I’ve only accrued two days of PTO (one sick, one vacation) but our flex time allows me to work when I’m feeling well enough to do so, or I could always take unpaid days off if I needed more than two days off for COVID. In other words, I was told my options were essentially to work through it or get a cut in my pay. …

The next day, I told my supervisor that I was angry over not getting any more sick leave during a global pandemic, and I still needed more time off. They recommended I schedule an appointment with HR to discuss my options, as “it’s murky.” I reiterated that I need time off, meaning I will not be available for appointments with HR or otherwise. I stated I would be taking the remainder of the week off to recover from COVID, and that if they could not accommodate my sick leave then to consider this my resignation, effective immediately. … I would have been happy to try and salvage the situation, but don’t really see the point if they’re going to make every sick leave 100x worse with their bureaucratic pandora’s box layered with maudlin well wishes.

Even more frustrating, people who have been exposed at work are finding their sick time completely wiped out by COVID even when they contracted it in the course of doing their jobs:

I’m an in-person medical provider who was exposed to COVID at work two weeks ago, developed symptoms, and am now testing positive. My company is saying that I can go into negative for PTO to pay for time I’ll have to be out, but there is no other way I’d be paid. … I’m really frustrated that they knew I was exposed at work; they informed me even, and still they’re acting as if this is somehow my fault and I can just go weeks without pay.

This person’s employer admitted they sent them to a superspreader event but is still willing to zap all their sick leave over it:

My job recently held a mandatory work conference in Florida. … While there, we were informed that several attendees got COVID—and then the emails kept coming. If you were in this group, you were exposed or on that bus or in this room or ate lunch at this time—basically a superspreader event. Inevitably, after two years of protecting my son, my whole family got COVID and were symptomatic.

When I returned to work after I was cleared, I was informed my timesheet was done and when I checked, they just used regular sick time. I’m new so that week of sick time basically wiped out all my sick time (did I mention I have a toddler who is a Petri dish of illness?) and it will probably be another six months before I build up a reserve again.

What’s going to happen in a few months when an employee whose sick leave was exhausted by COVID gets reinfected, or sick with something else, or breaks a leg, or otherwise has another legitimate need for sick time? They’re likely to be told to go into the red on sick time—i.e., borrow from next year’s allotment, which means the problem will be even worse next year—or to take the time unpaid, which means taking a pay cut just because you’re sick, something most people can’t afford.

Not only is it patently unfair to maroon employees without any remaining sick leave for the rest of the year simply because they got ill during a global pandemic, it’s also bad management. Employers should want employees to stay home when they have COVID, and they should incentivize workers to do everything they can to reduce the spread, including following the CDC’s recommended quarantine period. Zeroing out employees’ sick time pretty much ensures that some people will come to work sick in order to avoid that—thereby putting the rest of the workforce at risk.

If you’re thinking it’s surprising that employers aren’t required to offer special COVID leave given the public health crisis we’re in … well, they used to be. In March 2020, Congress passed a law requiring paid sick leave for workers with COVID or suspected COVID, as well as paid family leave to care for someone with COVID or suspected COVID. But that law was only temporary and expired on Dec. 31, 2020. (It also had huge loopholes in it and only applied to some public agencies and employers with fewer than 500 employees.) Congress could have extended it but didn’t. They did then offer tax credits to employers that voluntarily provided pandemic-related paid sick leave, but those ran out on March 31, 2021. It’s just one more way institutions are declaring the pandemic over, when it’s clearly not.

Since then, employees have been left on their own, meaning that once again individuals are stuck bearing the burden of a crisis that requires a response on a larger level.

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