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The Pandemic Sick Day Trap — And How to Get Out of It

In March, more American workers were granted paid sick days. But if you work from home in the pandemic, the expectations are anyone’s guess

Before the pandemic, Americans, reluctant to ask for a day off, or lacking adequate paid leave, barely took sick days. In fact, “sick days” were rapidly being replaced by “working from home” for anyone able.

Then, COVID changed a couple things. On the one hand, Americans are now hopefully more aware of how illnesses spread, encouraging infected workers to stay home if at all possible. On the other hand, many workers are already working from home, and what does a sick day look like if your average workday is spent in bed, anyway?

Let’s talk about what’s going on with sick days in America.

So, who can even take sick days?

One of the biggest problems before the pandemic was that most of our low-wage workers — 70 percent in the bottom 10 percent of wage earners — had zero access to paid sick leave. That meant they had to choose between staying home while sick and getting a full paycheck

That kinda changed in March, when Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which provided some employees up to 10 paid sick days. There were a worrying number of unfortunate exclusions — it exempted employers with more than 500 employees, like grocery stores and meatpacking plants, from granting their employees paid sick leave, for instance — but it still helped a lot of workers who previously had no paid sick leave whatsoever. (It also helped flatten the curve: In states where the law gave workers new access to guaranteed sick leave, there were 400 fewer cases of COVID per day.)

The problem is, this provision ends on December 31st, which means many workers will have any paid sick leave they acquired taken away, unless the government and businesses can come up with something to take its place. They seem to be working on it — more and more states and cities are taking it upon themselves to fill the paid leave gaps, too — so time will tell.

If I have paid sick leave, when should I take it?

When it comes to your average cold and flu — not the coronavirus, because we’re still learning more about that — according to primary care physician Marc Leavey, there are a few medical rules of thumb when it comes to how contagious you are, and therefore when you should stay home:

  • If your temperature is above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, you could be contagious.
  • Coughing, sneezing and oozing are quick ways to spread germs around the workplace, so any form of leakage is another reason to stay home.
  • And finally, if your head feels like a cinderblock and you have trouble thinking straight, that could pose a safety issue, depending on your job.

If you’ve stayed home, your temperature has come back down and you’re no longer sneezing or coughing for a full 24 hours, you should then be contagion-free.

Now, if you work with the public, rather than from home, the hope is that employers will be more willing to let their employees stay home while sick, especially until we all get a coronavirus vaccine. “I think companies will become far more lenient about sick days moving forward, but only for people who are heading into an office or service job,” says sociologist Anna Akbari, author of Startup Your Life. “We now have hypersensitivity to catching anything from anyone, so once you say you’re sick, people don’t want you around.”

That means all you essential workers should really, if you’re able, take all the sick leave you have if you’re not feeling great. “I’d say that employees should err on the side of taking leave if they work with the public and have even mild symptoms,” says workplace researcher Mark Bolino, author of The Thoughtful Manager. “Employees should certainly rule out the possibility that they might have COVID before returning to the workplace.”

But what if I already work from home?

That makes things a little more complicated. “For individuals who continue to work from home, I don’t envision the same level of generosity, with the rationale being that sick days are for not infecting others, not for sleeping — rightly or wrongly,” Akbari explains. “Therefore, I look for more companies to offer paid sick leave, while still maintaining expectations that employees will continue to meet deadlines and perhaps still attend virtual meetings and calls.” So, it sounds like we can still expect “sick days” to be replaced by “working from home,” even if you already work from home.

If you work from home and are so sick that you can barely open your computer, your best bet is simply checking in with your boss. “I’d argue that employees who feel sick, such that their health would make it difficult to perform their tasks, should qualify for a ‘real’ sick day regardless of where they’re working — even at home,” says Bolino. But that might be an optimistic view. “In practice, this probably cuts both ways. On the one hand, managers may expect employees to be able to do some of their work from home if they can still perform their jobs. On the other, some employees may want to save their sick leave and feel like they can still get paid for working, even if they’re sick.”

“My recommendation would be that employees have honest conversations with their managers about their situation,” Bolino continues. “If they feel capable of at least doing some work, then perhaps they should communicate that and take an appropriate amount of leave. Ideally, managers and employees should be looking out for each other in this way.”

It’s probably not what you wanted to hear, but even during a pandemic, Americans remain obsessed with getting their work done.