Guest opinion: The pandemic has shown us how workplace culture needs to change |

Guest opinion: The pandemic has shown us how workplace culture needs to change

Adam Hickey and George Fuss
Park City and Mamaroneck, New York

There are many lessons we have to learn about disease from the COVID-19 pandemic, and one is that we all need to be more mindful of the risk we may pose to others while we’re sick. One review of academic surveys (most of which were conducted in the United States) conducted in 2019 found that between 35% and 97% of respondents in those surveys reported having attended work while they were ill, often because of workplace culture or policy which generated pressure to do so. Choosing to ignore sickness and return to the workplace while one is ill puts colleagues at risk, regardless of the perceived severity of your own illness; COVID-19 is an overbearing reminder that a disease that may cause mild, even cold-like symptoms for some can still carry fatal consequences for others.

As a method of combating COVID-19, especially after many states set recent records in the number of new cases detected in a single day, we all have to be responsible and ensure that we do not put our coworkers at risk by attending work while ill, even if one is relatively confident that they do not have COVID-19 or one’s symptoms are mild enough to work through. Even after the pandemic ends, we should remember the lessons it’s taught us, and we should as individuals attempt to dismantle existing workplace cultures that may purposefully or unintentionally encourage workers to tough out illness rather than stay home. It’s likely that COVID-19 will simply be eradicated or disappear upon the deployment of a vaccine or a surpassing of the pandemic, and we can’t afford to become more complacent and continue engaging in risky workplace behaviors in the future.

A widespread and generous paid sick leave policy would be an integral part of any serious plan to change personal behaviors in order to combat future pandemics. According to the CDC, many essential workers are at higher risk for exposure to COVID-19 because their jobs require frequent contact with the public. But this higher risk is not rewarded with higher pay: According to the Atlantic, one in seven essential workers have no health care, a third of essential workers live in a household that makes less than $40,000 per year, and millions of grocery store employees rely on food stamps to get by. Essential workers are also disproportionately likely to be immigrants who possess fewer labor rights than native-born workers and have often come to the country on exploitative work visas. Additionally, the ranks of essential workers are disproportionately composed of women and people of color who have less social capital and on average receive less pay than their white male peers due to discrimination and systemic oppression.

These inconvenient truths force essential workers to keep clocking in hours even when they’re running on empty in order to feed themselves and their families, and in many cases they keep working when they’re feeling under the weather — even when they could be infected with COVID-19. A mandatory paid sick leave policy for every worker, ideally across the globe, would allow essential workers to return to work when necessary while still providing enough wiggle room for economically impoverished employees to take time off without going broke if they believe they’ve contracted an illness so as not to infect the rest of their workplace and the public at large.



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