03/10/2020 Molly Moseley

Seriously, stay home: Stopping coronavirus with paid sick leave

Unless you own a hand sanitizer company, conversations around the recent coronavirus outbreak may have you a bit on edge. With this brand new virus dominating the news cycle (and stressing supplies of canned goods and toilet paper), everyone wants to know how they can keep from catching it. 

Here’s what we know: the spread of coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, happens primarily from person to person through droplets produced by a sick person’s cough or sneeze. It can also be transmitted through contact with contaminated objects or surfaces, though this is less common. With no vaccine currently available, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has prescribed “everyday preventive actions” to minimize the spread. They urge people to up their hand washing game, regularly disinfect often used objects and surfaces, and (for the love of all that’s good and decent) stop touching your face!

While these measures are extremely important, there is one other recommendation that can have a massive impact on containing the outbreak: staying home when you are sick. That’s right, keeping our germs to ourselves can help prevent others from getting sick – who knew? It seems obvious enough, but a lack of supportive policies or entrenched workplace cultures often condition us to tough it out when we aren’t feeling well, or to return to work too soon after an illness. Policies that allow workers to remain home when they (or their children) are not well will go a long way toward stopping the spread of COVID-19 and other illnesses. 

Remote control

Offering a remote work option is a great way to encourage employees to stay home when appropriate. Twitter is currently leading the charge on work-from-home policies. In a recent blog post, the social media giant said it was mandatory for staff in Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea to work remotely. The company also said it was “strongly encouraging” all of its 5,000 employees around the world to not come into work, and announced a ban on all non-essential business travel and events. 

When you can’t work from home…

Twitter’s example may seem like a lofty benchmark, but their quick and thorough response is one more employers should be emulating. And while the widespread adoption of remote work policies is promising, it still leaves a large  segment of the workforce unaccounted for. Gig workers, those in the service industry and others earning an hourly wage, are often left with the difficult choice of heeding public-health guidance or earning a paycheck. 

When staying home directly impacts your ability to put food on the table, your threshold for “how sick is too sick to work?” is bound to be affected. This conundrum leaves these occupations at an increased risk for contracting and spreading coronavirus and other illnesses. So what can employers do to  support these workers and stop the spread of coronavirus? It’s simple: paid sick time. 

According to a 2019 study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 58% of workers in service occupations (and only 30% in the lowest 10% of wages) had paid sick time available to them. Part-time workers in particular lack access. Reshaping public policy to support these workers is critical. Eliminate the need to choose between getting and staying well and earning a paycheck, and you’re left with a healthier, better functioning workforce. This is good for public health and your bottom line

While such policies may be designed to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the short term, a shift in thinking around health in the workplace could have positive effects that reach far beyond this outbreak. Let’s hope that whatever changes coronavirus might bring about, the results continue to benefit all workers in the future.