Over the past eight months, I’ve cared for patients who have suffered with COVID-19 and those who have been exposed to people with the new coronavirus. Many of them, thankfully, didn’t require hospitalization. In these cases, they have been prescribed medication to try to alleviate mild symptoms. They have been sent home and told to quarantine themselves at home for 14 days. That’s when things go sideways.
Far too many of them don’t stay home because they can’t get out of work. If they don’t show up at their job, they don’t get a paycheck. So, they have to haul their COVID-19 infected bodies to work, clock in, stay silent about their diagnosis and increase the risk of spreading the disease to others.
They’re individuals who work in public transportation, food production, grocery stores, child care and retail. They’re the essential workers who have no choice but to show up while the rest of their communities continue to get services as they work remotely from home and sit through Zoom meetings.
More than 1.2 million people in Virginia have no paid sick leave, many of them essential workers who don’t have the luxury of working remotely and have to show up or lose their wages.
This must change. The benefits of paid sick leave during a pandemic are self-evident. A COVID-19-positive individual should not have to choose between staying in quarantine or going hungry.
Without the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, paid sick leave has many benefits.
Workers who can take time to rest and recover from an illness or an injury without getting their wages or their jobs cut are more likely to be healthier, and as a result more productive. A healthier workplace can help reduce employee turnover, itself a costly process. Before the pandemic, employees who worked while they were sick cost the national economy $160 billion. That price tag is probably higher now during the pandemic, and given the contagiousness and lethality of COVID-19, the cost in dollars and human lives is virtually incalculable.
For those of us who still go out to eat, four out of every five restaurant workers have no paid sick leave. For those of us who drop our kids off at the daycare center, three out of four of the people who work there and care for our children have no paid sick leave.
When our restaurant server can’t take time off because they’re sick, they’re putting other people at risk by transmitting disease. When a child care employee can’t take time off to care for an ailing family member, that’s an unfair burden on them and their loved ones. When an essential worker stays through a shift while sick, they’re less likely to be productive, affecting everything from service to quality to safety.
Health care professionals see every day how paid sick leave can benefit all of us. We encourage policymakers to begin this statewide conversation with diverse stakeholders: Small businesses, medical professionals, community groups and advocates, and many others. We encourage Gov. Ralph Northam and leaders in the legislature to create a task force to examine this important benefit to all Virginians. Taking action on paid sick leave quickly would make Virginia a leader in building a 21st-century workforce that’s healthier, more resilient and more productive, with or without a pandemic.
Dr. Rommaan Ahmad
@RAhmadDo on Twitter