Political Corner: The real economic threat of COVID-19 is a global lack of paid sick leave

Service workers risk spreading the virus by a financial obligation to work while sick

SARS-CoV-2’s high rate of transmission makes staying home while sick vitally important. Illustration: /The University of Tampa

By: Kelly Grounds, Peak Associate

As the number of coronavirus (COVID-19) cases surpasses 100,000, the economic impacts of the virus are becoming clearer. Worldwide markets have repeatedly dropped, suffering losses not seen since the last decade’s Great Recession, as anxiety about the pandemic broadens its reach. Amazon has seen price inflations of up to 2,000% for common products like hand sanitizer, while also trying to increase their stocks to keep up with demand. But the economic crisis being overshadowed during this epidemic is the one impacting workers across the globe: a lack of paid sick leave.

In an ideal world, if a worker felt sick, they would be able to call into work and stay home, recuperate, and not risk the health of their coworkers, themselves, or the general public. This is not the case for many workers who feel required to attend work while ill due to a lack of paid sick leave. The group most likely to not have sick leave are low-wage service workers who regularly deal with customers, products, or food. This is problematic enough during the regular flu season, but now that the world is grappling with a global pandemic, going to work while sick can be dangerous.

Health officials recommend a 14-day self-quarantine for individuals suspected of coming into contact with the COVID–19 virus. This allows time for potential symptoms to emerge to avoid spreading the virus. However, without paid sick leave or substantial job security, what is a necessity from a public health perspective becomes an impossibility from a financial one.

The heart of the problem is worker inequality. There are no federal laws in Canada to protect workers’ rights to paid sick leave, and as a result, most employers treat it like an optional benefit rather than a necessity. But in these extraordinary circumstances, businesses may be forced to help workers stay home sick to curb the spread of the virus. BC Premier John Horgan recently called on businesses to consider increasing the employee incentives to stay home while sick. This could help curb the spread of COVID–19, however, we shouldn’t need to wait until the cusp of a global health crisis to afford workers basic rights.