As the coronavirus that has sickened tens of thousands in China spreads worldwide, it now seems like a virtual inevitability that millions of Americans are going to be infected with the flu-like illness known as COVID-19. Public-health officials in the United States have started preparing for what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is calling a “significant disruption” to daily life. Because more than 80 percent of cases are mild and many will show no symptoms at all, limiting the disease’s spread rests on the basics of prevention: Wash your hands well and frequently, cover your mouth when you cough, and stay home if you feel ill. But that last thing might prove to be among the biggest Achilles’ heels in efforts to stymie the spread of COVID-19. The culture of the American workplace puts everyone’s health at unnecessary risk.
For all but the independently wealthy in America, the best-case scenario for getting sick is being a person with good health insurance, paid time off, and a reasonable boss who won’t penalize you for taking a few sick days or working from home. For millions of the country’s workers, such a scenario is a nearly inconceivable luxury. “With more than a third of Americans in jobs that offer no sick leave at all, many unfortunately cannot afford to take any days off when they are feeling sick,” Robyn Gershon, an epidemiology professor at the NYU School of Global Public Health, wrote in an email. “People who do not (or cannot) stay home when ill do present a risk to others.” On this count, the United States is a global anomaly, one of only a handful of countries that doesn’t guarantee its workers paid leave of any kind. These jobs are also the kind least likely to supply workers with health insurance, making it difficult for millions of people to get medical proof that they can’t go to work.