‘A huge problem:’ Why current paid sick leave policies might not be sufficient for Omicron

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FILE: NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 02 : Cashiers wearing protective masks work in a grocery store in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn on April 2, 2020 in New York City. New York City is in its second week of lock down due to the coronavirus. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

(ABC4) – 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. In Utah, January has seen the highest case count since the beginning of the pandemic, with over 700,000 cases of COVID-19 in the state.

But despite the recent surge, some companies have reduced COVID sick time to align with the amended CDC policy, which states that those with COVID need only quarantine for five days, as opposed to the previous ten. Walmart recently announced their new policy, which cuts their COVID paid sick leave in half. And 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,” says Eileen Appelbaum, who is co-director of 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 healthcare workers, the people who clean offices. They don’t have any time off like this.”

And indeed, it seems that the people whose roles have been the most vital over the course of the pandemic are taking the brunt of the blow. If these essential workers get sick with Omicron, it could not only wreak havoc on their particular work sectors but on everyone who depends on them.

“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,” says Dean Baker, a visiting economics professor at the University of Utah. “In the hospitals, we know a lot of healthcare 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 healthcare 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 don’t get tested and continue to work from their offices despite the risk.

“And what is their choice?” she asks 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.’”

So, as local, state, and federal authorities advocate for COVID vaccines, masking, and social distancing, perhaps they should be championing paid sick leave just as vehemently.

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 says. “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.”

And 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 says.

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