How a Country (Mis)manages COVID-19 Without Sick Pay or Family Leave

Impossible Choice: America’s Paid Leave Crisis

Al Jazeera (2020)

Film Review

The US and Papua New Guinea are the only two countries in the world that fail to guarantee both sick and family leave (aka maternity or parental leave) for all their workers. Although this documentary was made just prior to the global coronavirus outbreak, it lays out clearly 1) the stark brutality of employment policies that force people to work when they or a family member is sick and 2) the significant role these policies play in spreading contagious infections – as millions of Americans show up at work with early symptoms of COVID-20.

The only good news in the film is the Family Leave and Medical Insurance Act Congresswoman Rosa DeLaura (Dem Ct) introduced in 2019. The bill would guarantee US workers 12 weeks of combined sick and family leave. Under DeLaua’s proposal, the government, rather than the employer, would manage the leave benefits, funded via joint employer/employee payroll deductions.

The film also features the heart breaking stories of a physical therapist whose 2 1/2 month old baby died at a dodgy daycare center she failed to qualify for unpaid maternity leave; a teacher who was unlawfully fired when she used unpaid FMLA* leave to care for a three-year-old son undergoing cancer chemotherapy; and a lactation coach forced to go on welfare when her husband died, leaving her the sole provider and care of a newborn baby.

*The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act requires employers of over 15 employees to allow all workers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons.


Useless Eaters: Stigmatizing Sick People

concentration camp

In western countries, I see a frightening tendency to make sick people personally responsible for being ill. We are all bombarded with constant media messaging that anyone can stay healthy if they eat the right foods, exercise, and manage their stress levels. Meanwhile media pundits who demonize people on disability benefits for being lazy and unwilling to work.

I find all this vaguely reminiscent of Hitler’s “useless eater” policies of the 1930s. Hitler’s definition of a “useless eater” was a German who consumed resources without participating in production. Included in this category were tens of thousands of individuals with chronic physical or mental illness and physical and intellectual handicaps – who would be the first inmates in Nazi concentration camps.

Internalizing this pressure to be and appear well, people blame themselves if they become ill. This attitude is strongly reinforced by the constant TV ads that bombard us for cough and cold remedies that enable people to attend work with colds and even quite serious illnesses, such as bronchitis and the “flu.”

The pressure on kids to attend school or daycare when they’re sick – because their parents can’t afford to stay home with them – is a public health disaster. Sick kids in the classroom expose a lot of other kids, who go on to infect their families. Many children suffer one respiratory after another, a perfect set up for asthma (which is reaching epidemic proportions) and permanent lung disease.

Human Beings Get Sick

Surely it’s healthier and more humane and community-minded to accept that sickness is fundamental to the human condition. Epidemiological studies show that only 10% of illness is accounted for by lifestyle factors (including smoking). Other studies show that people who take time off recover faster and cope better with other life stresses.

38% of US Workers Have No Paid Sick Leave

Advice that sick people stay home and look after themselves is easy in most civilized countries (like New Zealand) owing to national laws requiring that employers provide workers paid sick and parental leave. The US isn’t one of them. Thirty-eight percent  of US workers have no paid sick leave.

There are no federal laws requiring American employers to provide paid sick leave. Only Connecticut, and a few cities (New York, Portland, San Francisco, Washington, Seattle, Newark, Tacoma, and Jersey City) have them. Even more disgusting ten states — Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin — have enacted preemption bills that blocking cities and towns from passing paid sick leave legislation.

At present only California and Vermont have laws requiring employers to provide paid parental leave. So I guess working parents with sick kids are just out of luck.

The Campaign for Paid Sick Days

Just to be clear here. None of these cities and states have mandated paid sick leave because they were feeling kind and charitable. These laws were enacted because local activists fought for them. You won’t here about the Paid Sick Days for All Coalition on the six o’clock news. The corporate media wants you to believe the war is over and the good guys lost (to quote Leonard Cohen).

The war against corporate fascism ain’t over by a long shot. People can get get involved with the Paid Sick Days for All through their website:

photo credit: Rob Sheridan via photopin cc