The tone of the typical isolation postcard is sunny, insistent and ambitious as a holiday greeting: “Thank you to everyone who sent their best wishes for @VP,” Doug Emhoff, the second gentleman, wrote on Twitter . “She is feeling good and working from home.”
Like so many Americans, Vice President Kamala Harris contracted COVID-19 in late April. Like so many Americans, she worked it from beginning to end, seated at her desk surrounded by the signifiers of productivity: binders, pens, pastel Post-its. Other COVID-positive political figures have assured the public that they too are moving forward on their to-do lists: Jen Psaki, Gavin Newsom. Donald Trump, when he had COVID-19, posed for his own work photos, although he appeared to sign a blank sheet of paper.
In the only wealthy country in the world that does not guarantee paid sick leave, simply overcoming it – even for those who could take paid leave – is the norm.
“I’m trying to figure out in my head why I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll get through this,'” said William Fitzgerald, 36, who runs a strategy firm. He caught COVID-19 in late April and has been taking meetings throughout his illness. “Why didn’t I rest during the week? »
Working while sick is an American pastime — one that a vicious pandemic, which has sickened millions, has not disrupted in one way or another. More than 100 other countries guarantee some form of paid sick leave. In the United States, a survey this spring of 3,600 hourly workers found that two-thirds of those who had been sick with COVID-19 or other illnesses went to work while sick, according to the Shift Project at Harvard, a work planning research project. Many of them spoke of fear of getting in trouble with their managers or financial pressures.
Some 33 million Americans do not have paid sick leave. Low-income workers are much less likely to be able to take time off when they are sick; just over half of those in the bottom quarter of wages get paid sick leave, compared to 94% in the top quarter.
But even employees who have paid holidays often do not use the time allocated to them. Americans in the private sector average seven sick days a year. A Mercer survey of large employers found that non-hourly workers only used half of their sick days in 2021. That number was virtually unchanged from before the pandemic in 2018, which analysts at Mercer attribute this in part to the prevalence of sick people working from home. . In other words, for some people, COVID-19 has removed the sick day instead of reinforcing it.
“There’s this culture that everyone around you is working on, so you feel like you have to accept that,” Fitzgerald said. “The most important value in America seems to be the amount of money in your bank account, and I think that’s what motivates so much to work with disease.”
Fitzgerald, who is still tired from his bout of COVID-19, has designed generous leave policies for his own staff: unlimited sick days, a minimum of 25 vacation days. But when he got chills in late April and tested positive for coronavirus, he couldn’t bring himself to take advantage of that paid leave. After all, it was a high-pressure work week, with customer calls on top of a staff retreat.
So Fitzgerald insisted on video meetings and even invited his team to sit in his backyard while he wore a mask so he wouldn’t miss their time for an in-person collaboration.
“I don’t think it sent a good signal to the people who work for me,” he said.
By the time he was two weeks into his illness, racking up 20 calls every day, he felt like collapsing. He logged out of a meeting with a client, went to bed and slept from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.
In an office, workers said, it’s sometimes easier to draw the line between workdays, which means coffee and commuting, and sick days, which mean chicken soup.
“You’d go to the doctor and you’d get a note and they’d say, ‘You can take three days off,'” Fitzgerald said. “It would be a bit like ‘these are the rules, we have to obey them. “”
But those don’t seem to be the rules now. Why do people stay connected even when they are in pain, coughing, feverish and have paid time off? With many people now vaccinated, a positive coronavirus test is sometimes treated with a shrug, even as the virus continues to rise.
Some office workers said they couldn’t shake the guilt of a system that makes productivity a virtue, the same system that condones the lack of legally mandated paid sick leave.
James Carr, 38, a data scientist, who contracted COVID-19 in February and worked there, recalls being reprimanded for trying to use his sick days at a previous job due to a deadline imminent. AZ Madonna, 28, a music journalist, recently contracted COVID-19 and couldn’t silence the voice in her head asking why she wasn’t doing anything.
“I’ve definitely had managers who, within a minute, encourage me to take a break, but they always respond to emails when they’re on vacation or sick,” Madonna said. “It could be a bit like ‘do as I say, not as I do’.”
Many workers find themselves, consciously or not, mimicking the behavior of their bosses. They see managers answering emails from their beds and think they should do the same.
Thus, some bosses are taking a firmer line on the use of their leave. Jim Canales, director of the Barr Foundation, a philanthropic organization focused on the arts, education and climate, contracted COVID-19 about a month ago. Canales has spent the past two years urging his team to take care of themselves, and he knew working on his illness would undermine that message. He sent a morning email to his staff noting that it was Friday the 13th, Mercury was in retrograde and he had tested positive for COVID-19 – and did not plan to be available for meetings or emails.
“I can’t preach a message of self-care for two years and then behave differently,” he said.
Canales has revamped her organization’s sick leave policies during the pandemic, in an effort to encourage employees to actually use their time off. He renamed sick days to health days, so workers know they can also be used to care for family members. This health leave was also made unlimited, so no one felt pressure to keep it for the future.
But even as some employers encourage workers to use their free time, many others are abandoning the benefits introduced during the pandemic. This spring, Amazon announced a return to its pre-pandemic sick leave. Walmart stopped offering emergency paid time off to most of its employees with COVID-19 at the end of March, instead asking employees to use their regular bank of paid time off and vacation days. sickness.
Some argue that the disappearance of sick days prevents them from fully recovering. Angela Lewis, who works at a speakers bureau, tested positive for coronavirus last month, along with the rest of her family. Her son stayed home after school and her self-employed husband slept. Lewis, meanwhile, dropped a note in Slack to say she had COVID-19 and then went through her standard workweek, despite her congested head feeling like she weighed 100 pounds.
“Some people kind of have a badge of honor, like, ‘Yeah, I worked on it, that was good,'” she said. “In the end, I could say that I did the same thing.”
“I didn’t have a fever, so I felt like I had to get out of it,” she added, noting that she had paid time off that she didn’t use. “But then I got bored of feeling obligated.”
And even some of those managers most staunchly committed to rest and recovery struggle to accept their own advice.
“I talk about this in hindsight, from what I learned, but I’m still at work this week trying to get through it,” said Fitzgerald, who said he didn’t have the impression of having completely recovered.
A day later, he called back with an update: he had decided to take the day off.
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