Cornering COVID-19: The Importance of Paid Leave During this Global Crisis

Anne Marie Bonds
March 20, 2020

I’ll be honest. I don’t like working from home! After the NETWORK office went partially, and then fully, remote last week, I thought I had it made. I could wear my pajamas all day and my only commute was from my bed to my kitchen table. Even with the constant worry and threat I’m feeling due to the global COVID-19 pandemic surrounding me, I was at least excited to work from home. Unfortunately, working remotely isn’t all sunshine and roses. Technical difficulties arise almost every time I try to join a conference call or conduct a meeting, and I’m starting to feel disconnected from my friends and family.

Fortunately, I don’t live completely alone. Like many millennials living in a big city, I have roommates —three to be exact. As COVID-19 spreads across the world, they don’t have the privilege that I have to simply work from home. One of my roommates is a hairdresser and one works at Trader Joe’s while also a full-time student. Both of these roommates are currently facing challenges due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and both of their struggles are being widely felt by all vital workers and those working in the gig economy.

For my roommate, who is a hairdresser, she is technically classified as a gig worker or an independent contractor in her salon. Andi relies on payment from her clients and does not receive payment from the salon itself. So, when her salon shut down due to fears over coronavirus spreading in Washington, D.C., she was not given any paid leave from her employer. In order to pay her rent for the next few months while the entire city is on lockdown, she has been cutting hair in our house, purposefully breaking the CDC’s self-distancing and quarantine guidelines out of financial necessity. My roommate has been constantly cleaning and disinfecting the house to try and keep us all safe. She has described her debilitating fear and anxiety that she’ll get sick to me, but her need to remain financially stable outweighs any illness she faces.

One of my other roommates, is facing similar issues in her job. She works as a cashier at Trader Joe’s while paying her way through college. When coronavirus became more of a threat in Washington, my roommate knew that she was still going to work, because her job is a vital part of our nation, especially as more and more people begin to panic shop at grocery stores and retailers across our nation. While people are staying home and working, she is coming into contact with hundreds of people every day at the grocery store in order to provide an essential service that keeps our nation running. My roommate worries because she is at risk of contracting COVID-19 every day at work, yet she does not have any guarantee of paid leave if she feels sick and has to quarantine.

This global pandemic has revealed a glaring injustice in our nation’s labor system: our heinous lack of federally mandated paid leave. The vast majority of working people in the United States do not have access to comprehensive paid leave. Across the nation, less than 25% of middle to lower-income workers have access to paid leave. With this highly contagious, deadly disease spreading through our communities, it is more important than ever that people are able to stay home when they are sick. Lack of paid leave means low-income workers are required to go to work, even when they are sick, and even when they could be carrying coronavirus.

Luckily, the House and Senate passed a historic paid leave bill this past week in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It allows for 10 days of paid sick leave for full-time workers and up to 12 weeks of unpaid emergency family leave if they or a loved one gets sick for a long period of time. This bill is a historic first step in ensuring that all people have access to paid leave, and it will vastly reduce the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the United States. Unfortunately, this bill still does not ensure that all workers have access to paid sick leave, specifically health care workers and employees who work for corporations with over 500 and under 50 employees. For these workers, more must be done so that they can stay home when they are sick and care for their loved ones during this trying time.

No one should have to go to work when they are sick with a deadly virus, simply because they are financially forced to. They could potentially infect and endanger others when they are sick and more and more people could die. It is imperative for our nation’s health that we are all ensured comprehensive paid sick leave.