Loress Burke, a worker at an Amazon warehouse in New York, was coughing throughout our interview when we spoke recently. She tried to get tested for COVID-19, but her doctors instead told her to stay home for two weeks. In line with Amazon’s new policy, the company said it would pay her for the length of her quarantine. But there is a catch: She was told she won’t be paid until after she returns to work. That’s a problem, she said, because she cares for her disabled sister and needs the money now. “I got the idea that they weren’t sure how this is working, because this is as new to them as it is to us,” Burke told me.
Burke’s ordeal highlights the struggle some workers are facing in getting paid for their sick days, even as their companies roll out new policies offering paid leave because of the coronavirus pandemic. Many employees are no doubt fortunate to be working at companies whose services are still in demand. Nevertheless, large companies such as Walmart and Amazon have struggled to adapt and explain their sick-leave policies amid a fast-moving pandemic.
Where retail workers once might have received a set number of hours off, the crisis has raised complicated new questions about employee absences. What should happen to workers who are immunocompromised, for example? Or to those who feel sick but aren’t able to get a coronavirus test? Unlike white-collar workers, many of whom enjoy liberal sick-leave policies, blue-collar workers can’t always be confident they’ll be paid for their time away. While an asthmatic office worker can easily work from home, many retail and delivery workers with underlying health conditions make agonizing calculations about whether to risk their health or their income.