On the Refrain of “Don’t Go to Work if You’re Sick”

“Don’t go to work if you’re sick!” This is a refrain I’ve heard all the time in the wake of the spread of the coronavirus.

I’m here to say that there’s a problem with this refrain.

What I just said may have some shock value, but hear me out. I wholeheartedly agree that, in an ideal world, someone should not go to work if they are sick. After all, we do not want the coronavirus, the seasonal flu, or any other sickness spreading around.

The problem, however, is that the laws on sick leave in many states, and in the United States of America, is so broken that many Americans have no choice but to go to work if they are sick. Furthermore, the culture at some employers encourages work while being sick and discourages taking care of yourself when sick.

For starters, there is no national paid sick leave law, and most states also do not have any paid sick leave law.[1] In a country where 40% of Americans are just one paycheck from poverty, it is simply not affordable to take an unpaid sick day, even if there’s an option to take an unpaid sick day.[2] Yes, we want people to stay home when they are sick, but what do we say to people who have to face a choice between being unpaid and facing poverty, and going to work while sick? Because America’s laws on sick leave are broken, we have to ask that difficult question.

Then, there are all the people who do not have any sick leave at all, not even unpaid sick leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) does provide for some unpaid sick leave,[3] but there are at least two limitations to the law (there may be more I am missing):

  1. Not all companies are covered under FMLA. Namely, companies with fewer than 50 employees are not covered by the law;[4] people who work for those smaller companies would need to hope that their home states have robust sick leave laws, or they’re out of luck.
  2. The common cold and flu are not generally considered to be serious health conditions for the purposes of the FMLA, unless serious health complications arise. In fact, the only condition under which a cold or flu counts as a serious condition for purposes of the FMLA is “if the individual is incapacitated for more than three consecutive calendar days and receives continuing treatment by a health care provider.”[5] I don’t know if the coronavirus will meet the seriousness threshold, but if it doesn’t (just as the flu doesn’t), then there is literally no federal sick leave protection for people with coronavirus. That should give people pause.

Worse yet, some companies, such as Walmart, are accused of punishing their employees for taking sick days.[6] What are you to say to a person who genuinely fears that they would be fired if they tried to take days off because they were sick? Even in places where there are robust sick leave laws, such as New York City, employers have at times still been known to try to (illegally) fire workers for using sick days.[7] Such work cultures are toxic, but for many, staying in that toxic work culture (even if it means working while sick) is the only way they can pay the bills and put food on the table.

So yes, I am in favor of people staying home when they are sick. However, if we are really serious about people staying home when they are sick, we must get to the root of why many people go to work when sick, which is that laws and many company cultures alike do not have a system that allows the sick to take care of themselves. And until we have a system that allows the sick to take care of themselves and stay home, we run the risk of a national health crisis.

[1] https://www.ncsl.org/research/labor-and-employment/paid-sick-leave.aspx

[2] https://fortune.com/2019/01/29/americans-liquid-asset-poor-propserity-now-report/

[3] https://www.dol.gov/general/topic/workhours/sickleave

[4] https://www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/WHD/legacy/files/employeeguide.pdf

[5] https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/opinion-letters/fmla/fmla-87

[6] http://www.businessinsider.com/advocacy-group-report-walmart-punishes-employees-sick-days-2017-6

[7] Here’s a story from a Chipotle in New York City: https://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/ny-chipotle-nyc-paid-sick-leave-law-worker-illegally-fired-20200226-alzjufinb5er3esoz2pfo6dvsi-story.html

Twelve Years of Bloomberg as Mayor: A New Yorker’s Perspective (Part Three)

Those of you who’ve been on my blog during the last week or so will know that I’m doing a mini-series on what it was like to have current candidate for president Michael Bloomberg as Mayor of New York City. I explained in Part One why his record as mayor is relevant, and I explained in Part Two the multitude of problems he had with his treatment of others. Today is the third and final part of my mini-series, which will go into his record on some other issues, as well as where we should go from here with the Bloomberg candidacy.

One of the most important issues this campaign is that of trying to “save our democracy.” And rightfully so, because there is a genuine fear among many that President Trump is dangerous to American democracy. However, if Mayor Bloomberg’s record tells us anything, it’s that he would also be a danger to American democracy. New York City voted not once, but twice, to have term limits for people holding elected office in New York City government (mayor, comptroller, public advocate, council members). Yet, Bloomberg, with the help of the city council at the time, overturned the voice of the people, and changed the limit from two terms to three (it was changed back to two terms…after Bloomberg won a third term).[1] People fear that President Trump would try to overturn the election if he loses, or ruin our democracy further if he wins—those are understandable fears because he has been, for example, not always indicated a willingness to concede an election to a winning candidate, even if it is clear he loses the election.[2] However, Bloomberg, with the help of the New York City Council, managed to do something that not even President Trump has managed to do (yet): actually overturn an election (Bloomberg overturned two, after all). If he becomes President of the United States, let’s hope he leaves his ability to overturn elections in New York City, and not bring that ability to Washington, DC.

He gets praise for his stance on the environment. And, in theory, I agree with him on the fact that the environmental crisis should be treated with urgency. However, I find that praise hollow when he drastically cut funding from public transit while he was mayor,[3] even though use of public transit instead of the car does a world of good for the environment. It’s also hollow when his own environmental practices were subpar, such as having an entourage of SUVs that often idled (mostly to keep on the air conditioning unit on in the SUVs so that he could stay cool during the summer)—he apologized for the idling, but not for the use of the SUVs in the first place (or even an explanation of why those environmentally-unfriendly gas guzzlers were necessary for his team), to my knowledge.[4]

Bloomberg also tries to cultivate an image for himself as being just on health care. Yet, his record on health care in New York City was anything but. Noteworthy was the number of community hospitals that, under his tenure, were forced to close. The New York Times editorial board accused Mayor Bloomberg of having long ago “checked out” on this issue, and a then-mayoral candidate by the name of Bill de Blasio got arrested for protesting the proposed closure of one of the hospitals.[5] Bloomberg also vetoed a proposed law that would have required many city businesses to provide paid sick leave,[6] so if he got his way (he didn’t, ultimately), then tough luck to those working for businesses that didn’t provide the paid sick leave—you’d better work through your flu with a fever of over 102 degrees, even though that would, of course, endanger yourself and others.

Economically, the wealthy became even wealthier. There’s no doubt about that.[7] But if you weren’t wealthy? Not so much. While he thought that taxes on the wealthy were a dumb idea,[8] he thought it was preferable to shoulder the burden of “fiscal responsibility” on unions[9] by letting the contracts of every single one of New York City’s 153 unions expire—unions where many of the members are in the middle and working class.[10] The most painful example of economic inequality under Bloomberg’s watch, however, was that was the increase in homelessness that happened while he was mayor[11]—an increase that continues to this day. While I acknowledge that there may be certain factors with such trends that may not have been in his control (such as policies at the state or federal level), this is a fact worth reflecting on. Given that economic inequality is such a major issue of this era, it’s puzzling that the Democrats would even consider nominating someone for President of the United States who oversaw economic inequality become substantially worse when he was mayor of his own city.

The bottom line is that, when doing a thorough examination of his record as mayor, his record was overwhelmingly an ugly one on social justice issues. Even more alarming is the fact that many of these social justice issues he was poor on are issues that are relevant today, for whoever is President of the United States—issues such as racism, sexism, economic inequality, and protecting our democracy. As to whether you think Bloomberg is still better than the other candidates in spite of all the baggage I’ve presented, that’s for you to decide. Just make sure you vote whenever you have the opportunity.


[2] https://www.politico.com/story/2016/11/will-trump-accept-2016-election-results-230932

[3] https://www.gothamgazette.com/transportation/361-improving-transportation-above-ground

[4] https://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/mayor-bloomberg-room-air-conditioner-parked-suv-idle-pollution-heat-wave/1948668/

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/12/opinion/wrestling-with-dying-hospitals.html

[6] https://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/mayor-michael-bloomberg-vetoes-paid-sick-leave-plan-passed-nyc-city-council/1997646/

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/01/michael-bloomberg-new-york-mayoral-record

[8] https://www.politico.com/states/new-york/albany/story/2012/10/taxing-the-rich-is-about-as-dumb-a-policy-as-i-can-think-of-bloomberg-says-000000

[9] https://observer.com/2013/12/bloomberg-sounds-alarm-over-labor-electoral-complex-in-final-speech-as-mayor/

[10] https://www.politico.com/states/new-york/city-hall/story/2019/01/13/labor-commissioner-who-settled-expired-contracts-with-entire-city-workforce-leaving-administration-788294

[11] https://ny.curbed.com/2019/11/25/20981929/michael-bloomberg-2020-campaign-housing-homeless-nyc