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OPINION

Will coronavirus erase the stigma of sick days?

Some workers are not able to do their jobs from home, so they must take precautions to not get sick and miss work.Kathy Willens/Associated Press

He had, his friend told me, all the telltale signs: harsh, dry cough, then a fever. Yet he went to work, interacting with colleagues as his health deteriorated. Recently hired, he feared taking a sick day would send the wrong message about his work ethic.

That was in early March. Weeks later, a coronavirus test came back positive. He’s now in the hospital, on a ventilator.

In the world’s richest nation, it is both a tragedy and a symbol of a morally bereft system that hundreds of millions of workers don’t have paid sick leave. That means they’re more likely to go to work when ill, endangering their own health and that of their co-workers.

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Just as damning is a corporate culture that stigmatizes taking days off.

Before city and state officials began issuing stay-at-home orders and preaching the gospel of social distancing, it’s likely that people unknowingly infected with coronavirus were still showing up at work, even if they weren’t feeling well. Those without paid sick days had no choice; many can’t afford to be docked a day’s wages for missing work.

Last month, US Surgeon General Jerome Adams tweeted, “Employers: PLEASE understand giving your employees flexibility and (paid) sick leave will save you money in the long run — it’s much cheaper than shutting down because everyone else gets sick!”

Passed last month, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act requires some businesses to provide limited sick pay or paid family leave under certain circumstances. Companies with more than 500 employees are exempt, though some, like Walmart, are offering “emergency leave” during the crisis. Two weeks of sick pay will be allowed only for those who can prove they have a coronavirus diagnosis or are placed under quarantine by a doctor. Those who feel ill or stay home without official medical documentation will not be paid.

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Of course, it’s supposed to be different for those with paid sick days. Yet we all know examples of colleagues, hacking and sneezing in the next cubicle (if there’s even that much separation), who did not feel comfortable taking a day to tend to their health.

That’s because in many American workplaces, sick time is implicitly discouraged. Those who take time to which they are entitled can still be characterized as weak or lazy — slackers who undermine team cohesion.

Employers love the word “team,” denoting that we’re all in this together. Still, all those sports analogies that have infiltrated the corporate lexicon carry with them the same knuckle-headed mentality about “playing through the pain." That’s had devastating consequences for athletes who’ve suffered concussions.

During the 1997 NBA Finals, Michael Jordan famously played what’s known as “the Flu Game.” Visibly ill but facing a crucial game, the Chicago Bulls superstar led his team to victory. By the final buzzer, he was so spent he couldn’t stand unassisted.

That Jordan put a game above his health (not to mention the well-being of those playing around him) is hailed as the ultimate team sacrifice. Former Boston Celtics player Bill Walton, who often played injured, said, “While it’s never any fun to be sick, it just added to the legend.”

No one gets called a legend for staying home sick.

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When I was a kid, schools gave perfect attendance awards, incentivizing students to go to school even when they should have stayed home. If I was under the weather, I would beg my mother to let me go to school to keep my record intact. After three spotless years, my streak ended when I caught chicken pox from my best friend — who came to school infected so she could maintain her own flawless record.

Businesses don’t need to give out attendance awards — a paycheck is motivation enough for workers. That’s the carrot dangled by employers who think sick time is a waste of company time and resources. The notion of paying someone to not come to work is anathema to a corporate mindset that prioritizes profits over people.

This pandemic has highlighted and widened every ragged seam in American life. This is why I scoff when people speak of getting “back to normal." That normal was built on a system of inequity operating to benefit some, at the expense of the masses.

Sick time is health care. It’s not a luxury or a perk. Returning to a time when millions aren’t paid for it, or are shamed into leaving it unused, would only amount to a restart of a dysfunctional society that was deeply unwell long before coronavirus paralyzed our nation.


Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.