The tone of the typical isolation postcard is sunny, insistent, and aspirational like a holiday greeting: “Thanks to everyone who sent their best wishes to @VP,” wrote Doug Emhoff, the second gentleman, in twitter. “She is feeling fine and is working from home.”
Like so many Americans, Vice President Kamala Harris contracted COVID-19 in late April. Like so many Americans, she worked with him, sitting at his desk surrounded by productivity signifiers: binders, pens, pastel sticky notes. Other COVID-positive political figures assured the public that they were also moving forward on their to-do lists: Jen Psaki, Gavin Newsom. Donald Trump, when he had COVID-19, posed for his own work photos, although he appeared to be signing a blank sheet of paper.
In the only rich country in the world that does not guarantee paid sick leave, just working for it – even for those who can take paid time off – is the norm.
“I’m trying to figure out in my head why I thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to work this out,'” said William Fitzgerald, 36, who runs a strategy firm. He contracted COVID-19 in late April and attended meetings throughout the illness. “Why didn’t I rest for a week?”
Working while sick is an American pastime – one that a vicious pandemic, which has sickened millions, has somehow not stopped. More than 100 other countries guarantee some form of paid sick leave. In the United States, a survey of 3,600 hourly workers this spring found that two-thirds of those who were sick with COVID-19 or other illnesses went to work while they were sick, according to the Shift Project at Harvard, a work research project. schedule. Many of them cited fear of having problems with their managers or financial pressures.
About 33 million Americans do not have paid sick leave. Low-income workers are much less likely to take time off when they are sick; just over half of those in the bottom quarter of wages receive paid sick leave, compared with 94% in the top quarter.
But even salaried workers who take paid leave often do not use the time allotted to them. Americans in private industry have an average of seven sick days a year. A Mercer survey of large employers found that non-hourly workers used just half of their sick days in 2021. That number was largely unchanged from before the pandemic in 2018, which Mercer analysts attribute in part to prevalence. of sick people working from home. In other words, for some people, COVID-19 ended the sick day rather than reinforcing it.
“There’s this culture that everyone around you is working on, so you feel obligated to go along with it,” Fitzgerald said. “The most important value in America seems to be how much money is in your bank account, and I think that’s what drives the work on the disease so much.”
Fitzgerald, who is still tired of his COVID-19 crisis, designed generous off-duty policies for his own staff: unlimited sick days, a minimum of 25 vacation days. But when he got chills in late April and tested positive for coronavirus, he couldn’t take advantage of that paid time off. After all, it was a high-pressure week at work, with calls from clients on top of an employee retreat.
So Fitzgerald pushed through video conferences and even invited his team to sit in his backyard while he wore a mask so he wouldn’t waste time on personal collaboration.
“I don’t think it sent a good signal to the people who work for me,” he said.
When he was sick for two weeks, filling up every day with 20 calls, he felt like passing out. He hung up on a client meeting, went to bed and slept from 1pm to 7pm
In an office, workers said, it is sometimes easier to draw the line between working days, which means coffee and commuting, and sick days, which means chicken soup.
“You’d go to the doctor and get a note and they’d say, ‘You can take three days off,’” Fitzgerald said. “It would be a lot like ‘they are the rules, we have to obey them’.”
But those don’t seem to be the rules now. Why do people stay connected even when they are sore, coughing, feverish – and have paid time off? With many people now vaccinated, a positive coronavirus test is sometimes treated with a shrug, even as the virus is still on the rise.
Some office workers said they can’t shake the guilt created by a system that makes productivity seem like a virtue, the same system that tolerates the lack of legally mandated paid sick leave.
James Carr, 38, a data scientist, who caught COVID-19 in February and worked with him, recalled being reprimanded for trying to use his sick days at a previous job because of an impending deadline. AZ Madonna, 28, music journalist, recently caught COVID-19 and couldn’t silence the voice in her head asking why she wasn’t doing anything.
“I’ve definitely had managers who with a minute are encouraging me to really take a break, but they’re still responding to emails when they’re on vacation or sick,” Madonna said. “It can be a bit like ‘do as I say, not as I do’.”
Many workers find themselves, consciously or not, imitating the way their bosses behave. They witness managers answering emails from bed and feel they should do the same.
So some bosses are taking a firmer line on the use of their licenses. Jim Canales, head of the Barr Foundation, a philanthropic organization focused on the arts, education and climate, caught COVID-19 about a month ago. Canales has spent the last two years encouraging his team to take care of themselves, and he knew that working through his illness would undermine that message. He sent a morning email to his team, noting that it was Friday the 13th, Mercury was retrograde, and he had tested positive for COVID-19 — and didn’t plan on being available for meetings or emails.
“I can’t preach a message of self-care for two years and then behave differently,” he said.
Canales overhauled his organization’s sick leave policies during the pandemic, with the aim of encouraging employees to actually use their time off. He renamed sick days health days so workers know they can also be used to care for family members. This sick leave was also unlimited, so no one felt the pressure to save it for the future.
But even as some employers are encouraging workers to use their free time, many others are abandoning benefits introduced during the pandemic. This spring, Amazon announced a return to its pre-pandemic sick leave. Walmart stopped offering paid emergency leave to most of its employees with COVID-19 in late March, instead asking employees to use their regular bank for paid time off and sick days.
Some argue that the disappearance of sick days is preventing them from fully recovering. Angela Lewis, who works in a speakers office, tested positive for coronavirus last month, along with the rest of her family. Her son stayed at home without going to school and her husband, who is self-employed, slept. Lewis, meanwhile, left a note on Slack saying she had COVID-19 and then went through her standard work week even though her congested head felt like it weighed 100 pounds.
“Some people kind of have a badge of honor, like, ‘Yeah, I worked it out, it was fine,’” she said. “Ultimately, I can say I did the same.”
“I didn’t have a fever, so I felt obligated to work on it,” he added, noting that she paid time off that she didn’t use. “But then I felt uncomfortable for feeling obligated.”
And even some of the managers most committed to rest and recovery are struggling to accept their own advice.
“I’m talking about it in hindsight, what I learned, but I’m still working this week trying to get over it,” said Fitzgerald, who said he didn’t feel he had fully recovered.
A day later, he called back with an update: he’s decided to take a day off.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.