‘Just wear a mask and don’t tell anyone’: Workplaces are filling up with sick employees
Maria Bernal, an employee at a Jack in the Box in Folsom, Calif., couldn’t read the orders popping up on her screen. Her vision was blurry, her hands shook from chills and her head felt heavy.
A pharmacist told her she probably had COVID-19. When she told her boss, the manager told Bernal to keep working.
“Don’t worry, everyone has it, you can still work. Just wear a mask and don’t tell anyone,” the manager said, according to a Jan. 14 complaint Bernal filed with Sacramento County’s public health department.
As the Omicron variant knocked out swaths of the labor force, people in a variety of jobs — fast-food workers, grocery clerks, teachers — say they have been under immense pressure to report to work while feeling sick or having tested positive with the virus.
Recently changed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has ratcheted up the pressure, workers told The Times, with employers calling back ill employees or trying to keep them on the job while their COVID status is unclear. The CDC shortened its recommendation for isolation for people who are infected with the virus but don’t have symptoms, or who are on the mend, to five days from 10.
“A lot of workers feel pressure to come in — a supervisor is leaning on them, saying, ‘I really need you today,’” said Kristen Harknett, a professor of social behavioral sciences at UC San Francisco who has polled service sector workers during the pandemic.
Two-thirds of service workers surveyed in the months leading up to the Omicron surge said they did not stay home when they were feeling sick and went to work ill. The numbers highlight the precarious situation for workers without sick leave, Harknett said. They also show the pressure of chronic short staffing, threats from bosses and the possibility of losing pay that also causes people to keep going to work, she said.
Pressures have only built since then.
In California, officials took a further step to battle shortages of healthcare workers as intensive care units filled up with COVID-19 patients. A policy change allows healthcare workers who have tested positive for the coronavirus but don’t have any symptoms to return to work immediately. And at facilities with the most severe staffing shortages, symptomatic staff are allowed to work with COVID patients.
Officials have said that the move, criticized by some as reckless, was necessary to keep hospitals staffed and essential medical care going through another COVID surge, and that workers are outfitted with protective N95 masks and tested frequently.
In the private sector, that is not the case. Ill workers are serving meals, taking orders and talking to co-workers and customers through cloth or surgical masks that offer less protection and raise the risks for all.
In the absence of a national effort to provide testing at the onset of the Omicron surge, corporate giants such as Google and JPMorgan Chase offered employees — many of whom work from home — high-end testing for free. Sports leagues such as the National Basketball Assn. and the National Football League also provided frequent testing to players.
The Biden administration has moved to make rapid tests accessible to all households, with the first shipment of free tests due to go out by the end of the month. But many lower-wage workers struggle to access these tests on their own, and many employers are not helping.
“Leaving workers in limbo is the last thing you want to do as an organization,” said Hakan Ozcelik, a professor of management at the Sacramento State College of Business Administration.
Employers should set clear rules on testing and return-to-work policies, explain why they work the way they do and continually update employees, he said. They should not be leaving workers to navigate public health guidance about testing, isolation periods, masks or vaccination on their own.
A recent run on over-the-counter rapid tests made it harder for people to make quicker, more informed decisions about going to work. And as return times for polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, lab test results have stretched, workers with limited time off or who can’t afford to be off the job are showing up to work as normal.
Bernal, the Jack in the Box employee, said she does not know what the chain’s protocols and sick-leave benefits are for workers who contract the virus, as no manager at the company has given her this information.
In an email Thursday, Jack in the Box spokesman Casey Middleton said the company requires franchisees to comply with federal, state and local health and safety requirements related to COVID-19, and is “actively investigating the concerns raised.”
The complaint Bernal filed with Sacramento County’s public health department alongside three of her co-workers at the Folsom Jack in the Box alleges restaurant management dissuaded workers from quarantining, encouraged them to cover up or not disclose their symptoms to their co-workers and failed to take additional safety precautions.
The complaint says the restaurant has allowed several staff members with COVID-like symptoms to continue working without wearing masks, including the store manager. About a third of workers at the Folsom location have been working with COVID-like symptoms or were home sick with a confirmed COVID case in the first two weeks of January, the complaint says.
Crystal Orozco, another Jack in the Box worker in Folsom, said in the complaint her manager asked to see a doctor’s note after Orozco texted the manager reporting she was sick with a fever and a cough, and was having trouble finding a COVID test.
Orozco doesn’t have health insurance and asked if the company could pay for her doctor’s visit. The manager never responded, according to Orozco’s statement submitted with the complaint.
Jack in the Box is “reiterating current state and federal protocols with our franchisees to maintain and uphold the utmost health and well-being of our personnel and customers,” Middleton, the spokesperson, said. He said franchisees set their own paid sick leave policies and COVID-19 protocols for their respective employees, but “as a brand, it is our priority to promote safety and clarity for all restaurant workers and guests alike.”
New emergency rules by California’s worker health and safety agency that went into effect Jan. 14 require businesses to make COVID testing available at no cost, during paid time, to fully vaccinated employees who had a close contact at the workplace with a COVID case, even if the employees are asymptomatic.
The temporary rules also emphasize more stringent masking requirements in the workplace, recommending surgical and medical grade masks and banning cloth masks “that allow light to pass through them” as a suitable face covering in the workplace. (In Los Angeles County, employers are required to provide well-fitting medical-grade masks, surgical masks or respirators, such as N95s or KN95s, to employees who work indoors in close contact with others, effective Jan. 17.)
It’s unclear how some of these rules will be enforced, and workplace attorneys said the burden is mainly on employers to comply.
With their severe staffing shortages, particularly in the food and retail sectors, and lapses in safety nets, such as mandated paid sick leave, the average workplace has become more dangerous during the Omicron wave, workers and labor advocates say.
On Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers reached an agreement to reinstate legislation requiring employers to give workers up to two weeks of supplemental paid sick leave to recover from COVID or care for a sick family member.
A similar law from 2021 expired Sept. 30, leaving many workers vulnerable.
“If they’re sick, they need to choose between showing up to work sick or forgoing pay or potentially getting written up,” said Harknett, the UC San Francisco researcher.
In her recent work, half of more than 6,000 workers surveyed in service sectors such as retail, fast food and grocery said they did not have access to any paid sick leave.
And workers often have to jump through additional hurdles to secure time off.
Ariella Alaia lives in a transitional housing facility where each time a resident is exposed to the virus, she is required to quarantine. When she called the Goodwill in L.A. County where she works on Dec. 27 to ask for time off, she said, the human resources representative told her she had to come to work: The organization’s policy states that vaccinated individuals who have been exposed should still report to work.
Alaia said she went back and forth with HR as she tried to explain that her living situation mandated she stay home. She doesn’t believe she will be paid for the four days she took off from work to comply with the residence’s policy.
Liz Schwalbach, human resources chief of Goodwill Southern California, said COVID sick leave is reserved for people who test positive. The nonprofit organization has resources for employees to schedule COVID tests and vaccine appointments, and it is committed to supporting workers in transitional housing, she said.
After the CDC shortened its isolation guidance, Los Angeles City Council Member Paul Koretz wrote letters to Amazon and Walmart, two companies that cut back the number of paid days off their employees can take for COVID quarantining, urging them to reconsider. Koretz reminded the companies that employees at their Los Angeles locations were still entitled to a full 80 hours of paid leave.
“Workers in Amazon facilities should not have to choose between caring for themselves, a sick family member or child and putting food on the table,” Koretz said in the letter, sent this month.
People in the city of L.A. employed by a company with 500 or more employees within the city limits, or 2,000 nationally, are guaranteed 80 hours of supplemental paid sick leave, per a June emergency order.
A CVS worker in L.A. who was out sick with COVID for nearly two weeks — her daughter was sick with the virus too — said she received pay for just five days off. Testing facilities are “super booked up,” said the worker, who wanted to stay anonymous in order to talk freely about her employer.
CVS isn’t providing PCR testing services at its Minute Clinics to employees, only home rapid-test kits, which aren’t as accurate, she said.
She’s worried other workers at the store are coming back to work still sick.
“There’s no way people can get a COVID test and result within five days,” she said. “Five days is not good enough.”
CVS confirmed it provides rapid tests to employees who have trouble getting one. CVS Health spokeswoman Monica Prinzing said in an email that the company is providing five days of paid leave for eligible workers, in line with the changes to CDC guidance, except where state or city paid leave laws provide for more.
In California, workers are eligible for up to 10 days of paid leave if they have a confirmed case of COVID-19, she said. She didn’t comment specifically on the case of the L.A. worker.
Calls for more proactive COVID policies, including paid sick leave and more uniform guidance on testing in the workplace, are growing nationally.
“I think testing is such a huge mitigation strategy. We could have had a better one,” said Autumn Laidler, a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools system.
Laidler and others in the teachers union prompted a sudden shutdown of the city’s schools in early January when they voted to refuse to return to in-person work because of surging COVID cases. The union wanted more robust testing, as well as rules requiring that schools transition to remote learning when the number of staff isolating due to COVID cases or exposures rises to a certain threshold.
A child-care provider at a facility in Las Vegas was told to come to work even after reporting to her boss she had been exposed to the virus and wasn’t feeling well, according to screenshots of text messages reviewed by The Times. The facility was short-staffed, and its director believed the worker, who is vaccinated, was well-protected.
The worker got a PCR test and went to work. After her shift, she was able to find a rapid test. The result was positive.
When she returned to work a few days later, the message from management was to not talk about what happened. “They said, ‘We didn’t let anyone know about your situation. You’re fine now, you can just work.’”
Of 215 complaints filed with Nevada’s OSHA workplace safety department in December, at least a dozen described scenarios in which employees were required to work while COVID-positive, or symptomatic and awaiting test results.
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