Credit: Joe Brusky Chicago CC BY-NC 2.0
While vaccines have been slowly rolling out for COVID-19 and state lawmakers are debating whether to throw out Wisconsin’s statewide mask requirement, a new report points to another tool that could help curb the spread of the coronavirus:
Not just money for public health departments or money to invest in medical prevention, treatment or cures — money in workers’ pockets.
Paid sick leave and workers’ compensation coverage when employees contract COVID-19 on the job could encourage more workers to safely stay in quarantine or isolation so they avoid spreading the virus, according to the report Healthy Workers, Thriving Wisconsin, from the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
The report’s authors calculate that the policies could reduce the number of new infections by 10% and save an estimated 75 lives a month in Wisconsin. The report draws on state and national data as well as interviews, including with workers in industries that have experienced COVID-19 transmission.
“In Wisconsin and around the country, work sites are sites of infection and outbreaks,” said researcher Jonathan Heller, senior health equity fellow at the UW Population Health Institute.
Heller spoke during an online news conference Wednesday organized by a coalition of worker rights activists. Along with the report, the presentation highlighted proposed federal legislation that would mandate paid sick leave benefits and add workers’ compensation protection for people exposed to the virus at work.
One in 10 Wisconsin workers is exposed to the virus every week, Heller said, and one in five is exposed over the course of a month. The state has already experienced thousands of workplace outbreaks — not just in the health care field, but in schools, grocery stores, meatpacking plants and warehouses, all employing essential workers.
Many in those jobs are people of color or rural residents. Their wages are often low. About 600,000 Wisconsin workers don’t have paid sick days, Heller said, and others work for employers that offer paid sick leave, but penalize or fire workers for using them.
That leaves workers with the virus having to choose between going to work and spreading it, or staying home — unable to pay for food, medical care, rent and other bills. “Forcing workers to make this impossible choice has resulted in a huge number of workplace outbreaks, as well as huge numbers of suffering families,” Heller said.
Employers who conceal information about outbreaks, fail to provide the necessary protective equipment and neglect to enforce safety rules “make workplaces major sources of COVID exposure,” said Belinda Thielen, an industrial hygienist who works with Voces de la Frontera, a statewide immigrant rights organization.
“We have spoken with many workers who have worked while sick, or who have made the decision not to get tested for COVID, because a positive test result would jeopardize their livelihood and their ability to support their families,” she added.
Analyzing state and national data, Heller said the Healthy Workers report concluded that if all workers in the state received paid sick leave, the reduced spread of the virus could reduce the number of COVID-19 cases by as many as 10,000 a month — and potentially save 75 lives.
According to the state Department of Health Services (DHS), in December 90,000 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 were reported in Wisconsin, and about 1,400 people died from the virus.
Several states have passed legislation ensuring that workers who have been infected on the job can get workers’ compensation coverage, according to the UW report. In Wisconsin, that protection was limited to first responders.
Sick leave and workers’ comp protections exclude casual or “gig economy” workers and many undocumented workers. Filling that gap with some form of direct payment equivalent to workers who don’t have paid sick leave or aren’t covered by workers comp “could also decrease workplace transmission and reduce community spread of COVID-19,” Heller added.
In some states, local municipalities have mandated paid sick leave. “We found the paid sick day laws elsewhere have not led to loss of wages or employment,” Heller said, “and paid sick day requirements could allow businesses to return to normal operations more quickly — benefiting both business and employee health.”
Milwaukee passed a paid sick leave ordinance after voters approved a ballot initiative in 2008. A lawsuit by business organizations delayed the measure, however, and the Wisconsin Legislature under Gov. Scott Walker subsequently banned local laws that would require employers to provide paid sick leave.
“They stole our win,” said Chineva Smith, senior organizer for 9to5 Wisconsin, a group representing office workers and other employees in jobs predominantly held by women, including many who are caregivers.
“Taking time to quarantine or isolate if they’re exposed to COVID-19 means risking their pay, and for many their jobs,” said Smith.
Ellen Bravo, of Family Values @ Work, which organized the press event along with 9to5 Wisconsin and Voces de la Frontera, said legislation to mandate paid sick leave and guarantee workers’ comp coverage for COVID-19 is included in the $1.9 trillion relief plan that the Biden administration has proposed. The bill applies to all employers, and includes a tax credit that would refund the expense for businesses with fewer than 500 employees.
Democrats in Congress also plan to release again a bill providing up to 12 weeks of paid family leave for workers, Bravo said.
Especially in light of the economic collapse that the pandemic brought on, support for such policies as critical, she added.
“This is a time for major investment in families’ health and economic security,” Bravo said. “That’s what we need to recover from the economic devastation of the past 10 months.”
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