‘Huge problem’: Experts concerned paid sick policies are worsening omicron surge

Coronavirus

FILE: Cashiers wearing protective masks work in a grocery store in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn on April 2, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

(KTVX) – As the omicron variant rips through our communities, it seems like we all have a friend, family member, or coworker who is sick with or has recently recovered from the coronavirus.

But despite the recent surge, some companies have reduced COVID sick time to align with the amended CDC policy, which states that people with COVID need only to quarantine for a minimum of five days, as opposed to the previous ten. Walmart recently announced its policy would align with the CDC guidance, and cut its COVID paid sick leave in half.

After the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFRCA) – which provided resources to those affected by COVID-19, including mandatory two-week paid sick leave – expired at the end of 2021, some workers aren’t afforded any extra time off for COVID-related concerns.

“It’s really a huge problem,” said Eileen Appelbaum, co-director of the progressive think tank, the Center for Economic Policy and Research, and an expert in labor economics and paid sick leave. “It’s a problem for the frontline workers, the health care workers, the people who clean offices. They don’t have any time off like this.”

Low-wage workers are especially vulnerable. Only 33% of workers whose wages are at the bottom 10% get paid sick leave, compared with 95% in the top 10%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

If essential workers get sick with omicron, it not only affects their health, but it can cause a ripple effect in the economy.

“I think what a lot of people are really worried about is that we’re going to see really large-scale staffing shortages in key industries,” said Dean Baker, a visiting economics professor at the University of Utah. “In the hospitals, we know a lot of health care personnel have been getting sick. We’re already short-staffed at many hospitals, so if, on top of that, you have 5% or 10% of your workforce out because they have COVID, that’s a really big deal.”

And with the new absence of COVID-allotted paid sick leave, experts say workers may be prompted to come into work with mild symptoms, or while they are awaiting test results. According to reporting by the Los Angeles Times, the California Department of Public Health has amended its policies to allow asymptomatic health care workers who have tested positive for the virus to return to work immediately.

According to Appelbaum, when people don’t have paid sick days and have no symptoms – or mild ones – they might not get tested and could continue to work from their offices despite the risk.

“And what is their choice?” she asked rhetorically. “What they say is: ‘If I take a test and it shows I’m positive, I won’t be able to come into work and I don’t have any paid sick days. I don’t have very much in savings and I certainly can’t cover my rent out of my savings if I don’t work.’”

According to Baker, it benefits both employers and employees to have a more liberal paid sick leave policy as the country continues to combat omicron.

“In a context where you have something that is highly contagious, which certainly omicron is, it’s to the employer’s benefit to err on the side of saying: ‘OK, maybe you’re not that sick, we’re not sure, but we don’t want you to come to work,’” he said. “Having special sick days if someone has used up all of their sick leave would be to most employers’ advantage because they really shouldn’t want someone to come into work sick and infect the rest of their workforce.”

The data seems to back up these assertions. According to an October 2020 study, adopting a COVID-specific paid sick leave policy after the passage of the FFRCA resulted in a decrease of approximately 400 fewer new COVID cases per day.

“In the states where these laws went into effect and employers actually provided the paid sick days, we see the flattening of the COVID curve,” Appelbaum said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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