Opinion: Why aren’t we paying people with the coronavirus to stay home?

Coronavirus health advisory poster
A coronavirus health advisory posted at St. Joseph Hospital Orange.
(Los Angeles Times)

The rapid passage this week of an $8.3-billion emergency spending plan to fight the spread and severity of the coronavirus shows that Congress and the president are willing to set aside their petty partisanship in the face of the emerging health threat.

That’s reassuring.

What’s not is that they left out of the funding package an important tool to fight the spread of COVID-19: paying people with coronavirus symptoms to stay home from work.

The dollars will go to vaccine and therapeutics development, protective equipment for healthcare workers, support for local public health departments and hospitals fighting outbreaks and help for global health efforts. But there’s no earmark for payments for people who may contract the virus but can’t afford to take a day off.


That’s a problem because, with the coronavirus apparently now freely circulating throughout the U.S., public health officials are asking people who have a fever, cough and other symptoms of the novel virus to stay home from work.

For people like me who work in companies that offer paid sick leave or in jobs that can be done remotely, it’s not a hardship to stay at home to nurse a cough in case it is not just a seasonal cold. But for the 32 million American workers who lack paid sick leave benefits, most of them in low-wage service industry or gig economy jobs, it’s a completely different calculus — and one that doesn’t add up to good public health policy.

For one thing, about 80% of the cases of coronavirus are mild and may appear to be just a cold. A lot of us simply power through a cold and go to work anyhow. And while it might be the wrong thing to do during the outbreak of a new virus that has no vaccine and few treatment options, it may not be feasible for people living paycheck to paycheck. It’s not fair to make low-wage workers choose between the real risk of not having enough money for the rent and the theoretical one of spreading an invisible contagion.

That’s why public health officials and Congress should be talking about directing some of that $8.3 billion toward an emergency paid sick leave program to subsidize workers who want to do the right thing and keep their germs to themselves but can’t afford to. (Later, we should move toward permanent federal paid sick leave. States like California and Washington have laws guaranteeing it to most workers, but most states don’t. It’s appalling that the U.S. lacks such a basic public health benefit for hard-working people.)

I know it’s politically difficult to talk about expanding federal benefit programs for low-income workers, but this is one case in which a small handout could make everyone safer. If we can spend $1 billion on global health efforts, surely we can find some funds to pay sick Americans to stay home. Frankly, I’m surprised that, given the advanced age of the people running our government, this hasn’t even been part of the funding discussion.

But it should be, because here’s the harsh reality: This outbreak favors the young. People over 60 are much more likely to get seriously ill and die from the COVID-19 illness than younger adults. And guess who makes up most of the people in food service jobs? Don’t we want to encourage them not to come to work sick?