Amid the coronavirus outbreak and flu season, the ability to call out of work is essential to reducing the spread of illness. However, without a sick leave policy in place, it’s not possible for many. Not even working remotely is an option for many professionals such as those in the service industry, hourly employees and low-income workers, many of which are held by people of color due largely to systematic racism.
According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, 38 percent of black people cannot earn a single sick day. For people of color, in which wages are typically lower, access to health insurance is harder to come by and multiple generations live in a single household, the effects of such run deep. Missing a few days of work can mean the difference between the ability to buy groceries or even afford the rent for the month. When one in five African Americans are caregivers to elderly relatives the lack of sick leave also means risking their health and the health of family members as medical appointments and emergencies go ignored, as well as potentially going into debt as they try to manage.
Should employees choose to stay home sick, some are being asked to provide a doctor note, which can be an impossible feat for the 10.6 percent of black people who don’t have health insurance.
There is currently no federally mandated paid sick leave in place. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has made a statement encouraging employers, “ensure that your sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance,” it provides no solace to employees if that time off remains unpaid.
Having a national paid sick leave would enable millions of Americans to take care of their health without concern for losing employment. However, it’s important to keep people of color in mind as we aim to push far-reaching paid leave policies. “Across the board people of color have been disproportionally harmed by federal policies in the past; especially women of color,” says Alex Baptiste policy counsel for workplace programs for the National Partnership for Women and Families. Low wage industries and domestic healthcare workers amongst others are generally left out of sick leave and family leave policies, all of which tend to be positions held by people of color, she points out.
There are currently 13 states that have passed paid sick leave, with the more recent laws proving to be the most progressive and inclusive laws. Those progressive laws tend to be those without specific stipulations for the beneficiaries and are careful not to exclude specific industries so they are inclusive of all demographics.
Even if a paid sick leave policy is enacted, for people of color it often means the decision between taking advantage of that leave and keeping their job in fear of adverse reactions. A study by Pew Research revealed that 69 percent of employees took less leave from work because they could not afford to lose money while 47 percent were afraid they’d risk losing their job.
“If the worker is afraid to take the leave it doesn’t do anybody any good,” says Baptiste. “Fear of retaliation tends to be the main reason why people of color don’t take leave.” There are consequences for employers who wrongly deny employees for taking leave or penalize them.
It’s easy to assume that a paid sick leave policy would solve the issue of the inability to prioritize health and sick days. However, the impact would be limited if employees are not made aware of their rights.
One in five people are not even sure if their employers offer paid leave of any kind whether it’s for routine doctor appointments, minor illness or even vacations. Employers need to go further than listing leave policies in the HR manual. They need to be readily available, posted in a highly visible place in the office and written in a way employees can understand, which often means posting the sick day policies in various languages.
Furthermore, we need a culture that lends itself to taking time away from work. A national paid sick leave, provides zero benefits if employees don’t find solace in taking it. That means employers need to take an interest in employee wellbeing and create an atmosphere in which they don’t feel guilty taking necessary time away.
Without these changes to policies, employee-employer relationships, and societal pressures, “stay home sick” becomes another empty statement much like “get help” to someone who has mental health issues or “get a job” to the unemployed.
Terri Huggins Hart is a New Jersey freelance writer by day and Zumba and pole dance enthusiast by night.