The Observer-Reporter building in Washington

Although vaccines have lowered the risk of the most severe illness and death due to COVID-19, being in an indoor, public space – any space – has carried with it a certain level of risk for almost two long years now, particularly for those who shun masks. The highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus has taken those risks and multiplied them several times over.

The unavoidable bottom line is that workers who work in stores and eateries, people who have to interact a succession of strangers for eight hours or more every day, often don’t have the option of taking paid sick leave and taking a few days off should they get a positive COVID-19 test result, or even if they come down with any of the less harmful viruses that ricochet around when the temperature drops and people retreat indoors. As an Associated Press story that appeared on the front page of the Observer-Reporter last Monday put it, some workers “are having to choose between their health and their paycheck.”

As we have noted on this page before, Americans are not slackers when it comes to the hours they log on the job when compared to our developed, wealthy peers. And unlike most of those other nations, there’s no federal mandate for paid sick leave, and only a handful of states and the District of Columbia require it. Pennsylvania is not one of them. To quote from a state website, “There is no Pennsylvania labor law which requires an employer to pay an employee not to work.”

So, many employees feel compelled to be on the job regardless of whether they feel lousy or could spread their germs to their colleagues or customers. While most workers get at least a day of paid sick leave, the portion that does not tends to be concentrated in the lowest-paid professions, which means that they might well report for duty simply because they can’t afford a single smaller paycheck.

One Philadelphia restaurant worker told the website BillyPenn.com, “There’s not a lot of people in service (work) that have a safety net.” Another factor to keep in mind: because so many businesses are scrounging for workers, some employees might feel compelled to clock in because no one else is available to cover their responsibilities.

“No one wants that scarlet letter for calling out at a restaurant that’s already struggling,” one worker told BillyPenn.com.

The need for paid sick leave has become abundantly clear in the course of the coronavirus. One day – and we certainly hope it will be soon – COVID-19 will become endemic rather than pandemic, and we will be able to resume something resembling the lives we had before the virus swept across the globe. But even people with the sturdiest immune systems or who are rigorously careful will eventually come down with something. Whether it’s just the sniffles or something more severe, they should be allowed to stay home, recover, and not worry about losing wages as a result.

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