“We can’t,” said a manicurist at a Silver Spring nail salon, pulling his mask down to talk to me. “We just have to try to stay healthy.”
He didn’t say why. He didn’t have to.
Our national workforce equation means that the more likely a worker (a pizzamaker, a driver, a day-care teacher, a manicurist) is to come into close contact with scores of people every day, the less likely it is that they will be able to afford to take a day off without catastrophic, personal impact.
“This thing is running amok,” said Anthony Advincula, who works on national policy issues for the Restaurant Opportunities Center and has been getting calls from restaurant workers across the country who are scared they’ll lose their jobs if they call in sick. “In the service industry, one person can make contact with 200 people every day.”
And because we’re a nation that has absolutely refused to make meaningful progress on the rights of most American workers — the Bureau of Labor Statistics says about 32 million get no paid sick days — that one person can’t afford to take the day off and minimize contact with thousands of people every week.
An Uber driver in Queens, a Starbucks barista in Seattle, a Waffle House worker in Georgia, a Walmart worker in Kentucky are all among the hundreds of Americans who’ve already tested positive for the coronavirus.
But, that marketing team leader who speaks to five people a day is now safely ensconced at home, fighting off a needy cat and teleworking while collecting a full salary.
He’s among the nation’s top 25 percent of salary earners, 92 percent of whom make at least $32 an hour and get paid sick days, according to numbers from the Pew Research Center.
If you’re someone in the middle of that score sheet, you make $13.80 or less for every hour of work and only 51 percent of y’all have any shot at paid sick leave.
For the lowest earners — $10.80 an hour or less — only 31 percent will get paid when they call in sick.
“When you look at those people, they are most likely to be interacting with the public. These are the people serving our food, taking care of our loved ones — our children, our seniors, the ones delivering goods to us, the retail workers and clerks,” said Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families.
This is about inequity, about the huge and fire-breathing, lava-pit gap between the wealthy and the rest of America that grows larger every year.
And it’s about racism.
“The tragedy,” Ness said, “is that the majority of those workers are . . . women of color.”
More than 85 percent of fast-food workers are women, she said. “About 70 percent said they’ve gone to work coughing or vomiting or with a fever.”
Taking two or three days off can be a month of groceries for a family or a month of gasoline. For too many, taking off those days and leaving the boss hanging for a shift can mean the whole paycheck is gone.
I remember those days. My mom worked through every cough, sniffle and knockdown flu she had because there was no way to replace the day of tips she would lose when she wasn’t waiting tables at the coffee shop.
“It’s economic inequity and racial inequity in our system,” Ness said. “This is how we build bias into our system.”
There is good news, though.
Thanks to this global pandemic, America’s barely legit workforce protections held together with spit, Scotch-tape, campaign slogans and ignorance, might finally get some help.
Because usually, unless the pork belly isn’t seared enough or the iced tea isn’t refilled, much of America gives little thought to the workers at the bottom of the economic ladder.
Now that they can infect the team leader and the whole crew he brought to lunch, we may consider how vulnerable the service industry workers are.
Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden, the Capital Grille and others, announced a new paid, sick leave policy that gives workers time accrued with seniority.
“And we’re hoping all corporate restaurants will follow suit,” Advincula said.
“The quicker we adopt mandatory sick leave, the quicker we’ll stop the spread of this,” he said.
On Capitol Hill, leaders who have always worked toward family and sick leave have been double-timing it.
“We are the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t have access to paid family and medical leave,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who has been pushing for such worker rights for years, said at a news conference Thursday. “It’s worse than unacceptable, it’s terrible policy.”
But it’s unlikely that legislation introduced by the House that would include free coronavirus testing, up to three months of emergency paid leave benefits to all workers affected by the coronavirus and a possible increase in the federal share of Medicaid payments to states will be approved by the Senate.
At least the conversation is happening.
Read more Petula Dvorak: