Without Sick Leave, Workers Put Customers at Risk

NBC Bay Area Investigation found workers fear they’ll lose their jobs if they don't show up.

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During the coronavirus crisis, health experts warn workers to stay home if they even suspect they’re sick, but an NBC Bay Area Investigation found that for nearly 20 million workers who receive little or no sick pay from their employers, that’s often not an option. The result: nurses, food service workers and grocery workers say they must show up for their jobs even though they’re feeling sick or risk losing a paycheck and possibly their job.

“I worry because I work in the kitchen,” said Ana Martinez, who prepares food and tends the drive-thru at McDonald’s in San Jose. Martinez said she came down with a fever a week ago. She stayed home two days but then went back to work, still with a fever.

“That’s a danger to be working like that because anyone can be exposed to this sickness that is hitting us,” she said.

"We are very prone to catching the virus ourselves," said McDonald's worker Ana Martinez (March 31, 2020)

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, a quarter (27%) of all workers at American companies get no paid sick leave. BLS data shows that more than half (53%) of the lowest paid workers nationwide get no paid sick leave.

And even though the US Congress and President Trump in mid-March passed a bill to mandate paid sick leave for all employees, that law exempts businesses with more than 500 employees and with 50 or fewer employees.

Maria Chavez has been working at McDonald’s in San Jose for 14 years. Like her co-worker, Ana Martinez, she gets three days of paid sick leave each year.

“After that, if we’re sick and we stay home, we don’t get paid,” said Chavez. “I have to come to work - with a fever, with a cough, I have to come to work.”

A day after speaking to NBC Bay Area, Chavez was laid off from her job. Officials at the McDonald’s that laid her off did not return several requests for comment as to why Chavez lost her job. The McDonald’s where Chavez works is corporately owned.

Maria Chavez told NBC Bay Area that she was fired one day after speaking with the Investigative Unit. (March 31, 2020)

In a written statement, a McDonald’s spokesperson said, “Employees at our company-owned restaurants who are impacted by the virus are receiving two weeks paid leave to tend to their critical health needs.” The statement did not address specific questions about why Chavez and Martinez are not receiving more paid sick leave.

“I'm very worried,” said a nurse who asked to remain anonymous. A 20-year veteran at Kaiser, she wanted to speak out but also feared losing her job.

She told us her hospital management pressures nurses there to work while sick. “It's basically ‘We know you're sick but come into work anyway.’ And there's a lot of intimidation for people that do call out sick,” the nurse said.

Kaiser Permanente had this response: "What this nurse says is inaccurate. We advise all employees not to come to work if they are sick and in fact are now checking employees’ temperatures at entrances to our hospitals and inside medical offices.  Anyone with a fever of 100 degrees or greater is asked not to enter the building." 

A survey conducted by the Shift Project, headed by sociologists Daniel Schneider of UC Berkeley and Kristen Harknett of UC San Francisco, found that more than half the workers at 91 large U.S. companies reported they don’t get paid sick leave. Nearly 75% of workers employed in the food industry, told the Shift Project they don’t get sick leave pay.

“Many of the most vulnerable workers in our society, those that are the lowest paid are least likely to have benefits like paid sick days,” said Elise Gould, Senior Economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington D.C.

She points out that the recent paid sick leave legislation, passed in response to the coronavirus crisis, exempts the largest companies — those with 500 employees or more — which leaves about 7 million workers out of luck. The law also doesn’t cover small businesses employing 50 or fewer workers. Gould estimates that leaves more than 12 million more workers without paid sick leave.

“When they don't have paid sick days then they're not likely to be able to take time off of work when they get sick, when their kids get sick,” said Gould. “They might have been exposed to this virus at this time, and so then they could infect their workers and they could infect their customers. And that is terrible at a time when we have a pandemic that is spreading across the country at an incredible rate.”

“You have to protect the health of your employees and your workforce and the public as a whole,” said Luke Wake, senior staff attorney for the National Federation of Independent Businesses. But, he said many small businesses are barely surviving during the crisis.

“They're just desperately looking for some way to continue to pay their employees,” Wake said, “They're just desperate to figure out even how they're going to continue to put food on the table for their families.”

Wake said many small businesses have already closed their doors, while others face difficult decisions about their future. “If they realize that they're just not going to be able to pay the bills, they have no choice but to close or to do layoffs,” he said.

Wake points out that big companies have more cash flow and are better able to pay sick leave. “One of the absurdities here is that this paid leave mandate was imposed on small businesses, but they exempted businesses with over 500 employees, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense,” he said.

“McDonald’s is a rich company,” said Chavez. “If I was a manager, I would take care of my people.”

Food workers Chavez and Martinez said they’re afraid to go to work sick, and afraid of catching the virus on the job. They say they’re even more afraid of not getting a paycheck to buy food, medicine and pay their rent.

“I have family that depends on me,” said Martinez. “I came to work for my paycheck. That’s why we show up to work, no matter how we feel.”

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