Why calling out sick won't be easy for minimum wage workers amid coronavirus outbreak

Going to work sick can make the epidemic worse, but the rent needs to be paid.

March 8, 2020, 5:22 AM

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website offer a simple solution for anyone who fears they might have symptoms of the novel coronavirus.

Colorful, sneezy, coughing, achy cartoon people warn: "STOP! Stay home when you are sick ... rest … and remember to wash your hands often with soap and water."

But for millions of Americans without paid sick leave, staying home isn’t an option and a lack of a paid leave could contribute to the spread of the deadly virus.

"I’ve definitely had to come in when I'm sick before," said Fran Marion, a Kansas City, Missouri, single mom making $11.50 an hour at McDonald’s. "Missing a day’s income is the difference between a roof over your head next month, or keeping the lights on."

Tune into ABC News Live at noon ET every weekday for the latest news, context and analysis on the novel coronavirus, with the full ABC News team where we will try to answer your questions about the virus.

Marion and her family have had bouts with homelessness. For her, a "roof over your head" is a very real concern. The last time Marion was so ill she physically could not make her shift, the electric bill was the one that went unpaid.

"A day’s income is $70 to $90. So when I put off my light bill I needed an extension to the next check, which Lord willing would be a full one," she said.

PHOTO: A traveler wears a medical mask at Grand Central station in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., March 5, 2020.
A traveler wears a medical mask at Grand Central station in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., March 5, 2020.
David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

Marion worries about what would happen if the coronavirus came to her community.

"You're preparing the customer’s food. It’s a domino effect," Marion said. "What if a sick worker passes it to the food and the food to the customer? We’re all talking about it. My 17-year-old is making sure everyone’s always washing their hands. You can wash your hands a hundred million times, but when you're sick you're sick."

McDonald’s said that while it is not making any set changes to policy at this time, it regularly reviews government guidance.

"The health and wellbeing of our people, our customers and our communities is our highest priority and drives our decision making," a McDonald’s spokesperson told ABC News in a statement. "As we proactively monitor the impact of the coronavirus, we are continuously evaluating our policies to provide flexibility and reasonable accommodations. Our people are the heart and soul of the McDonald’s family and, of course, we will support them through this unique circumstance."

The spokesperson could not say what support would be offered, but did note that there’s been an increase of sanitizer sent to locations.

Judy Conti, government affairs director at the National Employment Law Project, said fast food workers are in the same boat as other low-wage and hourly employees, including some who deal with at-risk populations like elder care workers

"Fast food workers and other low-wage workers who are paycheck to paycheck worry they will lose their jobs," she said. "And they certainly will lose pay. They have to think about -- will they make rent? Will they pay the bills? Have enough healthy food?"

"When you don’t work you don’t get paid," Conti added. "And if you don’t show up to work you may not have a protected job. What if you are supposed to be quarantined or your kid should be quarantined?"

PHOTO: People exit a subway station before being disinfected by MTA workers in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., March 4, 2020.
People exit a subway station before being disinfected by MTA workers in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., March 4, 2020.
Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

She said the issue is exacerbated by the nature of the job.

"Think about the job of a fast food worker. You are exposed to hundreds and hundreds of people. You can’t telecommute," she said. "It’s all well and good for a Merrill Lynch or IBM to say, 'Stay home work from home.' If you work at Walmart or McDonald's or a local hospital you are exposed to contaminants and then you are exposed to the population."

Walmart, the world's largest employer, has issued similar suggestions to the CDC, and said it will continue to monitor developments.

"As we shared last week, all associates should take preventive measures to stay healthy," the company said in a statement. "As always, if you’re not feeling well, please don’t come to work."

Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank, said even if fast food workers find a way to stay home when sick, directives to seek medical attention go unheeded for the uninsured.

"Seventy-three percent of workers have paid sick days, so about a quarter don’t. And these are often the low wage jobs, the service sector," Gould said. "Hourly workers take care of children and the elderly. Those who work as home health aides -- or in retirement homes or nursing homes. Children don’t seem to be at risk themselves, but they have the ability to spread the disease. And they have less respiratory etiquette."

"Staying home or working from home can be easy for upper middle class people with good jobs," she added. "The recommendations from the CDC -- all the common sense things -- could lead to economic catastrophe for the low-wage worker. This whole situation shows in painstaking detail how fragile our safety net is."

Related Topics