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WKSU, our public radio partners in Ohio and across the region and NPR are all continuing to work on stories on the latest developments with the coronavirus and COVID-19 so that we can keep you informed.

Should workers be paid to stay home sick due to COVID? Right now that's up to individual employers

 Essential workers say they still feel vulnerable as the pandemic grinds on.
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Jacob Lund
Essential workers say they still feel vulnerable as the pandemic grinds on.

It’s been more than three months since the federal government ended its tax credits for employers who provide paid sick leave if an employee contracts COVID. Now, as the omicron variant delivers a spike in coronavirus cases around Northeast Ohio, employers and workers are sparring over who pays for time off when a worker gets sick or has to quarantine. It’s a challenge for health officials who are trying to slow the spread of the virus.

At the beginning of the pandemic federal lawmakers passed a series of rescue plans that reimbursed employers for time off due to COVID. But those benefits expired a year ago, and additional tax incentives for employers to provide paid time off expired at the end of September.

That’s put economic interests in conflict with public health guidelines as employees eye their bank account balances while making decisions about whether to go to work or call in sick or even to bother taking a COVID-19 test.

“As we sit in January of 2022 there is no requirement or incentive for employers to compensate people who are out because they have a positive diagnosis or they are quarantining,” employment attorney Anne-Marie Ahern said.

That has put economic interests in conflict with public health guidelines as employees eye their bank account balances while making decisions about whether to go to work or call in sick or even bother to take a COVID-19 test.

“We know as employment lawyers that if people aren’t being paid and they – particularly those people who are living paycheck to paycheck – as between their livelihood and staying home, a lot of times people are going to come to work even when they shouldn’t be,” said Ahern.

Some businesses are telling workers to take their paid time off (PTO) or go unpaid. For some, using precious PTO is a tough pill to swallow – especially among workers who are exposed to the virus at work.

If Cleveland’s emergency medical technicians run out of PTO they are going without pay when they get sick with COVID-19, said Timothy Sommerfelt, secretary the Cleveland EMS union.

“When the pandemic first started, anybody who contracted COVID… got free time off from the city that was paid through the CARES Act. That’s no longer the case,” Sommerfelt said. “We have more people off than ever, and now they’re taking their time out of their own sick time. And if they don’t have enough sick time … they’re going unpaid even though they may have contracted this on the job.”

The city did not respond to a request for comment. 

EMTs are not the only ones who feel they are being forced to choose between safety and their paychecks. Many workers say that as the pandemic has dragged on that their employers seem willing to let workers get sick rather than confront a public tired of mask mandates and social distancing.

“They might call us essential workers but are we treated like that? No. You get thank yous sometimes — less so now than was before,” said Ellie, a Cuyahoga County grocery store worker, who didn’t want us to use her last name out of fear that she’d be fired. “It’s jarring sometimes when you’re ringing someone out and they’re not wearing a mask and tell you they had COVID last week.”

Many essential workers feel vulnerable at work.

“I’m exposed all the time,” she said. “There was an exposure yesterday and the day before and the day before. What are we going to do? Take off of work or get a COVID test every week when you can’t find them here? What are you supposed to do?”

Ellie’s employer is more generous than some. She said she and her co-workers can take up to three days of paid time off when they’re sick, regardless of how much PTO they’ve accrued. That PTO policy has prevented her and her coworkers from quitting, she said.

The tight labor market has made many employers reticent to fire employees who have called in sick.

“Given how hard it has been to hire, train, replace employees across almost every segment of the market, I think that it’s going to be very unusual for an employer to jump to termination because of a COVID-related illness even if the employer has that right,” said Ahern, the employment attorney.

But public health officials argue that we cannot rely on the largesse of individual companies to fight pandemics. Erin Murphy at Lorain County Public Health said public health officials need legislators to create policy that will make it possible for people to follow their recommendations.

“We can do as much awareness and education about, stay home when you’re sick, wash your hands, wear a mask, stand six feet away from others,” she said. “But at the end of the day, if the system isn’t working to support those pieces, then it’s not going to happen.”

Officials discussed possible changes to sick leave policies after the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.

It was the “same exact discussion that we’re having right now: How can policies be more supportive of people staying home when they’re sick?” Murphy said. “That was more than 10 years ago and I think things maybe have gotten a little bit better. But in terms of being where we should be having sick leave as an option still isn’t reaching the whole population that needs it.”

The debate over paid sick leave will likely continue this year.

In a statement to Ideastream Public Media, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown said passing legislation that includes paid leave is a priority.

In November, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a version of the Build Back Better Act that included four weeks of paid sick leave for workers. That legislation is currently stalled in the Senate.

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