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Leon Kaye headshot

Coronavirus Sparks One Question: Less Hand Sanitizer, or More Paid Sick Leave?

By Leon Kaye

As media coverage of the coronavirus outbreak continues, one underlying issue is raised time and again in the United States: Many workers, especially those who work for hourly wages in the food service or retail sectors, have little — if any — paid sick days.

Fears of angering the boss or worries about paying the rent mean many people in this situation won’t seek medical help if they feel symptoms. As these workers continue to clock in, despite the science and common sense that show they should stay home when feeling ill, they put their colleagues and customers at risk — and this was true long before COVID-19 (every flu season, for example). And as we observe Women's History Month, let’s pass on another reminder: Over 60 percent of women in the U.S. workforce are paid hourly. 

Since we launched this newsletter, we've often observed scenarios in which business was quick to step in where government fell short. But this round, it’s actually governments that have been more proactive, not corporate executives. Whatever you may think of President Trump or his rivals on Capitol Hill, credit these leaders for speaking out for paid sick leave.

Now, more companies are responding to these concerns. Darden Restaurants, the owner of Olive Garden, announced it is offering paid leave for hourly workers. Granted, the highest number of sick days these servers, hosts, cooks and bussers would earn is six or seven per year if they work 30 hours a week (and the move came shortly after a news piece publicized the lack of paid leave for Darden workers), but it’s a start.

McDonald’s says many of its outlets, company-owned or franchised, already offer five days of paid sick leave to hourly workers annually. Yesterday, the fast-food giant said it would pay employees at corporate-owned locations up to 14 days of compensation if they become quarantined. Walmart announced a similar policy this week. The list of companies that are offering leave for hourly workers showing coronavirus symptoms also includes Apple, DoorDash, Trader Joe’s, and the ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft.

Not everyone is impressed.

“Companies are putting out hand sanitizer," crowed The Washington Post, “But for years, many have campaigned against sick pay.” The Post pointed out that when the city of Orlando tried to mandate sick pay in 2013, Darden was among the employers that lobbied state officials in Florida to block that mandate.

Consumers are also complicit with this stark day-to-day reality for hourly workers. We’ve become accustomed, even feel entitled, to $5 T-shirts and $8.99 dinners with unlimited pasta. Such low costs are easy on our wallets, but retail and food service workers are paying the price.

This crisis will teach us many lessons, but one should stick with the business community: Paid sick leave shouldn’t be viewed as an expense, but an insurance policy. The costs associated with employees getting their colleagues and customers sick go beyond the ledger — they involve human suffering, not to mention a company’s brand reputation if an outbreak gets out of hand.

In the future, when companies tout their business practices abroad, their policies here at home will be vetted relentlessly. The decision by the companies mentioned today to grant sick leave was the right one — as for other companies on the fence, the time to launch paid sick leave, quite frankly, was yesterday.

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Image credit: Andrew Herashchenko/Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye