The Insanity of Making Sick People Work

Coronavirus is putting extra burdens on workers, from health professionals to low-paid cleaning staff at the front lines of combating infection. Yet many of these same workers don’t even have the right to sick pay — meaning they’ll feel compelled to work even if it risks spreading the virus.

A utility service worker, wearing a face mask, deep cleans a Trenord train as a measure to prevent the spread of the coronavirus at Porta Garibaldi train station on March 04, 2020 in Milan, Italy. Emanuele Cremaschi / Getty

After the evacuation of its coronavirus-hit passengers, the Princess Diamond cruise ship needed thorough cleaning. An Australian contractor won the tender and duly sent its cleaners a text message offering a “great opportunity” for a week’s work. The workers in question were school cleaners, inexperienced in dealing with such hazardous conditions. But given their low wages, the promised $5,000 to $6,000 for a week was bound to appeal.

Fortunately, the United Workers Union wasn’t ready to stand for management’s careless attitude. They held protests at company headquarters and urged cleaners not to accept the job. The working hours and working conditions remained anything but transparent — and the cleaners hadn’t received specific training. The workers hadn’t even been screened for their own preexisting health conditions, which could have left them particularly vulnerable.

This dispute over the Princess Diamond encapsulated a big problem with how media usually present the coronavirus crisis. There’s been lots of coverage about how governments and businesses have sought to cope with the outbreak. Rather less attention is paid to how it is reshaping the world of work — and the burden placed on workers themselves. But it really is making a difference, and not only for health professionals.

From low-wage service workers to delivery drivers in Wuhan keeping a quarantined population fed, it is workers who are having to deal with the effects of the crisis — and who are often put in most danger. Indeed, cleaners and janitors will, in many cases, be the first line of defense against the spread of the virus. This strikingly illustrates how absurd it is that they often count among the worst-paid workers.

Faced with this situation — and mounting changes to how even the lowest-wage jobs operate — we shouldn’t just treat coronavirus as some sort of natural disaster. It urgently poses the need for unions to organize to protect workers’ safety — and make sure that those on the front line have both the remuneration they deserve and the protections they need.

“Presenteeism” Is Dangerous

Bosses will always decry absenteeism among their workers. However, in times of coronavirus, we should be more worried about the opposite — “presenteeism,” by those who ought to be resting or getting medical treatment but who feel forced to show up for work.

Take food service workers, who often earn so little that missing a day’s work will leave them in the lurch. As one Twitter user commented, if such workers don’t have sick pay, they’ll continue showing up — possibly meaning they’ll help spread the virus. Only 46 percent of service workers received sick-leave benefits in 2017, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In Britain, meanwhile, paid sick days often start after the third day missed. Nonetheless, the pub chain JD Wetherspoon — which counts more than 45,000 employees — has said that it will treat coronavirus like any other illness, meaning that ill workers who stay at home for fear of spreading the virus will be left out of pocket. The pub chain’s part-time workforce will be hit particularly hard — workers in Britain are only entitled to sick pay at all if they earn at least £118 a week.

In China, the scene of the first mass outbreak, private-sector companies have cut workers’ wages or delayed payments. In many cases, workers have been forced to use their vacation days and prepare for unpaid leave. At Apple supplier Foxconn, workers are returning to work on a third of their wages after returning from quarantine. Restaurant workers, meanwhile, find themselves unemployed as clients stay away.

Some employers are making changes. London’s Financial Times is advising white-collar professionals on the etiquette of working at home, and argues that the much-vaunted advent of remote working, outside the office, is finally becoming a reality. Traditional businesses are now moving toward smart and agile working, once exclusively performed in Silicon Valley and the tech industry, in order to prevent their employees from catching the virus and losing more working days. Oil company Chevron has asked its 300-odd London-based staff to work from home.

But these white-collar workers moving to remote working will make a tiny impact on the overall spread of the pandemic, for millions of service and manufacturing workers need to be present at the workplace to perform their jobs. Have workers turn up to work sick, and you risk infecting customers and clients; have them stay at home, and you might have to shut down your business altogether.

The problem is, the culture of “presenteeism” places the burden of the decision on workers — often meaning they’ll turn up to work when they should be staying home. The balance of forces in the workplace — the tyranny of the boss and the worker’s need for wages — thus imposes an irrational decision that endangers society as a whole. If showing up regardless counts as “loyalty to your job,” it’s not actually any good for your coworkers — or for customers.

The Jobs, They Are A-Changing

Yet not only white-collar work cultures are changing. It is also changing workers’ job content — and what our employment looks like. This is particularly the case for those who work in industries that might contribute to disease prevention, such as cleaners and health-care workers; medical staff that can remedy the worst effects of the virus; as well as others who could potentially spread it.

In Nigeria, where the first coronavirus patient was identified this weekend, security guards are being mobilized to distribute sanitizer to people entering buildings. Using some of the lowest-paid workers to prevent an outbreak ought to go hand in hand with added benefits for risky work and, indeed, the right to sick leave so that they can actually do their job effectively. Sadly, this is far from necessarily the case — with the most under-pressure workers instead burdened with more responsibilities but not more remuneration.

This was brought to my attention at a recent museum visit in Brussels, where museum staff ended up having to sanitize visitors’ audio guides. While this seems like a small task, workers rarely receive adequate training for these impromptu tasks that suddenly become part of their job. Even more rarely are they paid anything extra for these additional tasks: it’s all just “part of the job,” bosses insist. Anyone working in these customer-facing service jobs knows only too well how such little tasks and activities quickly pile up to become unmanageable. This is especially the case as sickness exacerbates staff shortages.

In the cleaning industry, coronavirus is intensifying the work regimen, with the introduction of standardized work processes. These are set by standardization bodies dominated by companies that will often codify their own working methods to gain a competitive advantage in the market. But workers don’t have any say in these standards — nor is it scientifically proven that these standards actually produce better outcomes.

Health-care workers tasked with remedying the situation are no better off. A whistleblower at the US Department of Health and Human Services has revealed that the department didn’t equip workers with sufficient protective gear. The lack of protective gear is only getting worse, as the general population is bulk-buying face masks. Thus, even the US Surgeon General has asked the public to refrain from buying the masks, so that health-care professionals who actually need them can contain the coronavirus and treat workers without getting infected themselves.

The Chinese outbreak strikingly illustrates how overburdening hospital workers undermines the entire effort to combat the virus. Here, more than 3,000 Chinese health-care workers have caught the coronavirus, with eight having died. In one case, a patient admitted to a hospital in Wuhan infected at least ten medical workers. The shortage of medical supplies, the increasingly high number of patients, and the high communicability of the virus twinned with stress, long hours, and understaffed hospitals are creating a vicious cycle for those who are meant to manage the crisis.

As coronavirus travels from country to country, there’s little doubt that more workers are going to be responsible for dealing with its effects. What remains in doubt is if this extra burden will mean more remuneration, additional training and improved occupational health and safety. But all this is imperative if those on the front lines are going to be able to maintain basic dignity at work — and do the job they’re meant to be doing.

The End of the Gig Economy?

Workers in the gig economy are at particularly high risk of catching the virus — yet they have among the lowest workplace protections. In China and elsewhere, food delivery drivers might be at the forefront of keeping self-quarantined people fed. Yet they have no knowledge of whether the person ordering food is sick or not.

While tourism is slowing down, service workers who come into regular contact with tourists have been catching coronavirus, with sometimes deadly consequences. In Taiwan, a taxi driver who had picked up passengers from mainland China and Hong Kong died in February. As tourism has slowed, cab drivers in Thailand have had their livelihoods destroyed as their daily wages have fallen from $30 to $10 a day.

Those who feel ill have often resorted to using taxis or ridesharing apps rather than calling ambulances. In London, a coronavirus patient didn’t call an ambulance when she fell ill but instead took an Uber to the closest emergency room, where she walked through the door and presented herself to reception staff. It was a short ride, and the driver didn’t catch the virus. However, these stories highlight the dangers that gig workers are exposed to.

Independent contractors working in the gig economy have no right to sick leave or health-care benefits. The Washington Post has reported that drivers have been scrubbing their cars. Of course, these drivers are not being paid for the time spent on cleaning. Unlike Lyft, Uber sent their drivers an in-app message detailing precautions they should be taking. This only underlines the reality that they are its employees — and should be treated as such.

The employment models of these companies, and their algorithmic management and control over workers, are unsustainable in times of coronavirus. The lack of transparency or basic workers’ rights — with employers doing nothing to protect workers against the spread of the virus —  is meanwhile contributing to anti-Asian racism, as some drivers refuse to pick up Asian-looking passengers.

Workers’ Demands, Unions’ Responses

At present, it looks like coronavirus will continue to exacerbate existing labor-market inequalities. But the labor movement shouldn’t let employers off the hook, as if they were just victims of the situation. Companies should be providing protective gear, offering more working from home, and providing additional paid sick days and health-care benefits.

Britain’s Trades Union Congress (TUC) is leading by example, as it argues for a change to sick pay. For the TUC, workers below the current £118-a-week threshold should be given sick pay — starting from the first day they fall ill. Such a legal change would benefit nearly 2 million workers. On March 3, prime minister Boris Johnson told the House of Commons that statutory sick pay (£94.25 a week) would be extended to the first day off, but he refused to answer Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s question on whether this would apply to part-timers.

Meanwhile, airport security workers at Frankfurt Airport in Germany have demanded that they be allowed to wear face masks. While face masks don’t necessarily stop the virus from spreading, unions certainly should be demanding increased health and safety measures for workers on the front line.

Moreover, unions could demand more days of “home office” or remote working — a popular demand among today’s workforce. While there are issues with working from at home, such as effectively working longer hours, this would particularly benefit women workers — who are more likely to have to balance caring for their children and/or parents.

Without doubt, the coronavirus crisis is bound to bring many changes to the world of work. But, as with any crisis, the question is who is going to foot the bill. For working people, one option is fatalism — just accepting bosses’ claims that dealing with this is now “part of the job.” Or, we can insist that employers take responsibility — and implement the changes needed to keep us and the general public safe.