Like so many Americans, US Vice President Kamala Harris contracted Covid-19 in late April. Like so many Americans, she worked sick, sitting at her desk surrounded by symbols of productivity: binders, pens, colored Post-it notes.
Other political figures who contracted Covid assured the public that they were also making progress on their to-do lists. Donald Trump, when he had the illness, posed for pictures at work, although he appeared to sign a blank sheet of paper.
More than a hundred countries in the world guarantee some form of paid sick leave.
In the only rich country in the world that doesn’t offer such a guarantee, working during illness is the norm — even for those who could take paid time off.
“I’m trying to decipher in my head why I thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to work anyway,'” said William Fitzgerald, 36, who runs a strategy firm. He contracted Covid-19 in late April and attended meetings throughout the illness. “Why didn’t I rest for a week?”
Working while sick is an American pastime — one that the pandemic hasn’t disturbed. In the United States, a survey of 3,600 hourly workers this spring found that two-thirds of those with Covid-19 or other illnesses went to work while they were sick.
According to the Shift Project at Harvard, a research project on working hours, many cited fears of having problems with their managers or financial pressures.
About 33 million Americans do not have paid sick leave, and the distribution is very uneven: those who can restore their health without losing their salary are just over half of the 25% of salaries.
Americans in the private sector have an average of seven sick days a year. A Mercer survey of large employers found that non-hourly workers used only half of their leave days in 2021.
That number was largely unchanged from before the pandemic in 2018, which Mercer analysts attribute in part to the prevalence of sick people working from home.
In other words, for some people Covid-19 ended the license rather than reinforcing it.
“There’s this culture that everyone around you is working, so you feel obligated to keep up with them,” Fitzgerald said. “The most important value in the US seems to be how much money is in your bank account, and I think that’s what drives so much work during illness.”
In an office, workers said, it’s sometimes easier to draw the line between working days and sick days: “You’d go to the doctor, get a note, and they’d say, ‘You can take three days off,'” said Fitzgerald. “It was a lot like, ‘It’s the rules, we have to obey them’.”
But those don’t seem to be the rules today. Why do people stay connected even when they’re sore, coughing, feverish — and entitled to paid time off? With many people already vaccinated, a positive coronavirus test is sometimes treated with disdain, even as the virus is still on the rise.
Many workers find themselves, consciously or not, imitating the way their bosses behave. They see managers responding to emails from bed and feel they should do the same.
So some bosses are taking a firmer line on the use of their licenses.
Jim Canales, head of the Barr Foundation, a philanthropic organization focused on the arts, education and climate, caught Covid-19 about a month ago. Canales has spent the last two years encouraging his team to take care of themselves, and he knew working sick would undermine that message.
He sent a morning email to the team, noting that it was Friday the 13th, Mercury was retrograde, and he had tested positive for Covid-19 — and did not intend to be available for meetings or emails.
“I can’t preach a self-care message for two years and then behave differently,” Canales said.
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves