The United States is a complete outlier in lacking all forms of paid sick leave

There's a pretty good chance somebody handling your food is sick

Thank you for reading. Please subscribe to support this newsletter if you can.

“At Philadelphia International Airport, where he works as a supervisor helping passengers in wheelchairs on and off planes, Benjamin McMillan says some of his coworkers have come to work even if they’ve been exposed to or infected with COVID-19 because they can’t afford to quarantine,” a recent piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer begins.

“It frustrates McMillan, a 44-year-old father who fears infecting his own father, who is immunocompromised. But he gets it: These workers, who make about $13 an hour, have already lost hours — and tips — during the pandemic. And while they can use their paid time off to quarantine, many haven’t accrued enough time because their hours have been cut.”

They’re certainly not alone in that.

“I kept being sick a secret for fear of losing my job,” a manager of a fitness studio in Brooklyn told me recently. She said she was berated by her boss for not continuing to pick up the slack for everyone else who were understandably calling out in the early months of Covid. She was afforded no sympathy while the same boss fucked off out of the city to stay safe she said. Needing the money she just sucked it up.

“The attitude that I had to have was that we are tough and this isn’t that big of a deal. It’s such a performance of being a good worker! Everyone was dropping out and I was supposed to be working night and day to cover for all of it.”

None of this is new under Covid. It’s long been one of the costs of doing business — or working so other people can do business rather — in America, a country that is severely diseased when it comes to how we’re allowed to be sick.

“I’ve never called in sick to work,” a career bartender in Boston told me. “Ever.”

“I’ve been doing this for twenty two years and can tell you stories about barely keeping snot in my nose while mixing drinks simply because there’s no room for calling in sick. Maybe you can get a shift covered, but more often than not you’re just working sick. If you try to call out, your management will punish you with worse shifts, less shifts, etc. Ownership does not give a fuck about us.”

“I know this is the standard for most menial labor type jobs but I always found it particularly disturbing in food service specifically,” another long time former food industry worker told me. “If you're picking up fast food ever there's a pretty good chance somebody handling your food is sick. It's just par for the course.”  

It’s a situation that will sound familiar to anyone who’s worked in what we’re now calling “essential” jobs. Hell anyone who’s worked in anything besides the most privileged of white collar situations can relate. In America if you aren’t literally on death’s door — and sometimes even when you are — the degree to which you are expected to show up to work when you’re sick almost directly corresponds to how “unskilled” or “disposable” your profession is considered. As someone who spent about twenty years in the restaurant and bar industry myself I can relate. In fact it occurred to me recently that I have never had a paid vacation or sick day off in my life. Not even as a freelance journalist have I ever felt able to push off a deadline no matter how dreadful I was feeling for fear of being seen as untrustworthy or lazy or “faking it.”

That’s a fear shared by people even with good paid time off benefits. My wife, a teacher, has something like 150 sick days off she’s never used over the years, at least in part because she’s worried it would reflect poorly on her professionalism to not be there for the kids.

For a variety of reasons one simply cannot afford to be sick in America.

This was always a dangerous situation long before a deadly global pandemic, but like it has with everything else, Covid has further highlighted just how ridiculous and tenuous almost every aspect of our lives are here, from healthcare, to labor conditions, to our collective sense of empathy, and how we often simply take it all as inevitable.

While the first few months of the pandemic did see some employers showing more leeway than usual to an extent, and some legislative relief emerged for a while, that fleeting sympathy for the ill worker has predictably waned over time and now we’re getting right back to where we started: puking and shitting and coughing and sneezing our germs all over each other because we can’t risk missing a paycheck, or worse, risk losing our job altogether. It’s something made all the more convoluted and circuitous when you consider how many of us — if we’re lucky! — have health insurance through our jobs. You can’t get too sick because you might lose your job which means you’ll lose your health insurance and then what will you do when you’re sick?

“Unfortunately, the situation in the United States right now is that 7 in 10 of our lowest income workers don't have a single day of paid sick leave,” Dr. Jody Heymann of the WORLD Policy Analysis Center and dean of the University of California Los Angeles' Fielding School of Public Health told PRI last year. “So, the people who need it the most have it the least. Of food service workers, 4 out of 5 lack sick leave; 3 out of 4 child care workers lack sick leave. This is a devastating impact on them and their families, but also to everyone they come into contact with.”

“The world has 193 countries,” she said. “179 of them have paid sick leave. That's 94%. That's not just the high-income countries. The United States is a complete outlier in lacking all forms of paid sick leave.”

Indeed the greatest country in the world is the only one among wealthy nations that doesn’t guarantee some form of paid sick leave according to the report “Contagion Nation: A Comparison of Paid Sick Day Policies in 22 Countries” from the Center for Economic Policy and Research.

We are “the only country that does not provide paid sick leave for a worker undergoing a 50-day cancer treatment,” they found, and “1 of only 3 countries that does not provide paid sick days for a worker missing 5 days of work due to the flu.”

Some states mandate it and some individual employers will offer paid sick leave to a certain point — and things like the Family and Medical Leave Act provide some protections, albeit most of which are means tested, applying to companies with a certain number of employees, or to workers who’ve accrued a certain number of years of service and so on — but the end result is that 24% of American civilian workers, around 33.6 million people, do not have have paid sick leave according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And again the more comfortable you already are the more comfortable you are allowed to be when you’re feeling your worst.

“The bureau’s 2019 National Compensation Survey found that, for civilian workers, paid sick leave, while nearly universal at the upper ends of the wage distribution, becomes scarcer the less money one makes,” according to Pew Research.

“92% of workers in the top quarter of earnings (meaning hourly wages greater than $32.21) have access to some form of paid sick leave, versus only 51% of workers earning wages in the lowest quarter ($13.80 or less). Among the lowest-earning tenth – those whose wages are $10.80 an hour or less – just 31% have paid sick leave.”

Needless to say this already grim state of affairs is only going to get worse in the aftermath of California’s Proposition 22 and the expansion and normalization of gig work. Never mind offering generous benefits, many companies won’t even admit that you’re actually their employee in the first place now.

If you’re looking for a place to start for answers on why we’ve done so superlatively shitty in our response to Covid, all of that goes a long way toward explaining it. We simply do not give a shit and we do not give a fuck about the health of our workers here. And if you don’t like it then some other desperate asshole is ready and willing to take your scraps and be thankful for it.

It doesn’t have to be this way obviously. Check out how we compare to some of the European countries who offer the most generous paid sick leave. In Sweden, for example, employees are entitled to 80% of their salary for up to a whole year when they’re seriously ill.

Who knows though, things might be set to improve somewhat under Biden. Fingers crossed!

“We must guarantee at least 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave and end the international embarrassment of the United States as the only high-income nation that fails to provide paid maternity leave,” Bernie Sanders wrote in CNN the other day.

That’s right, we also don’t offer any paid parental leave by the way, something I covered a couple years back in Esquire. The US, I wrote, has “the dubious distinction of being one of the few countries in the world—not just rich countries, but countries altogether—that does not have any sort of paid parental leave law at the federal level.”

Biden has proposed what seems like a decent improvement on paid sick leave protections under the ongoing crisis in his relief package — “the most ambitious expansion of paid leave provisions yet” the Washington Post called it — but, again, much of it is means tested and convoluted, including tax credits and so on, and how much will actually become a reality remains to be seen. It also will only last until September, then, presumably, we go back to business as usual (?).

To further drive the point home about how poorly we treat workers in this country when it comes to our physical health, and to highlight just how much more absurd these conditions are under a pandemic that has killed 400,000 of us in under a year, I asked readers to tell me stories about times over the years they’ve been forced to work while sick. That could mean being berated or punished by management for calling in, being unable to afford to take a day off even if you needed to, or working through an illness so severe that they almost certainly infected other people around them. Here’s what they said.


I worked at a dog kennel in 2009 making $9.50 an hour and I got H1N1. I was sick for two weeks with no pay. I missed my rent. They threatened to fire me so I worked very sick. I threw up at work and got into a shouting match while swabbing shit out of kennels at 7 am, mostly unable to breathe. My boss had a very stern one on one talk with me saying my work performance was suffering and it was unprofessional to come to work if you're sick. They also told me in same meeting I could not take any more sick days. 


I was lucky enough to be able to afford to take some unpaid time, but when I was going through chemo, I had some coworkers who offered to donate some of their paid time off and were swiftly denied.

I’m sure you are going to get way worse stories, (I was able keep my ok-ish health insurance) but I still get red-assed every time I think about it. This was about five years ago. I was was working for a small company in a dumb marketing job. At this point, I had been with the company for like, eight years. I got a testicular cancer diagnosis and had to use a bunch of my sick/vacation time for the initial surgery and recovery. They thought that took care of it, but a scan a few months later showed that it started to spread so I would need around five rounds of chemo. My plan was to work when I felt good enough (which is insane looking back on it), but there would be some days when I was so sick I couldn’t move from the bathroom floor.

You’d think I would have more time saved up after being there so long, but I really didn’t, so I blew through my time pretty fast. Then, I basically had to ask HR if it would be ok if I started taking unpaid days off so I could keep my insurance. They agreed to that (which I think they legally have to). Some of my friends there (rightly) thought that was bullshit, so they went to HR to offer their unused time to me. They were met with a big NO as the owner didn’t want to “set a precedent.”

So basically, I worked from home a lot (not very hard) and took the unpaid days when I needed to. Chemo was awful, and at one point I almost died from a pulmonary embolism, but I made it out. Which also reminds me that one person there told me I had “easy cancer.”

I’m not working there anymore.


I had a Crohn's flare up and went to work managing in a beauty school after being in the hospital over the weekend. I had to have my eyes constantly dilated, horrible GI symptoms, a shoulder sling for a rotator cuff and more. My job didn’t even ask if I thought I should stay home. 


This happened all the time in the restaurant industry. I once worked when I had a 103 fever during a slow season night shift because I was told otherwise I'd be taken off the schedule. However, the worst was probably having to work a double the day I got news (while at work) that a co-worker and close friend of mine had committed suicide the night before. That whole time period is a little fuzzy but if I remember correctly I was scheduled to work after I got back from his funeral as well.


A couple years after college I was a cook and had diarrhea so bad I had to run to the bathroom every 10-15 minutes and the manager was giving me shit — ;) — for wanting to go home. After a couple hours I told him I was leaving and he literally tried to block me from going out the door. I told him if he didn’t let me I was gonna call the health inspector and he finally let me go. 


I was working at Arby’s after dropping out of college, so I was pretty desperate to pay off useless student loan debt. My stomach hurt for a good three or four days and I couldn’t keep food down. I thought I had pulled a muscle and didn’t want to be taken off the schedule. It turns out I had appendicitis and my appendix, which should be about the size of a pinky finger, was roughly the size of my forearm and perforated. The doctor said if I didn't come in when I did I could have easily ended up in the hospital for weeks or worse. I still never go to the doctor.


I worked at a small print shop. I called out sick and my boss, the owner, said it seemed like a planned sickness. She would also ask for details about my sicknesses whenever I called out.  


I worked sick several times at my first "real" job because I had only so much PTO, which I hoarded like Gollum, and it was Frowned Upon to be out with something other than Imminent Death. I was also hourly, and while we were allowed to work overtime from time to time, I couldn't make up hours, so I was a little stuck.


I  was in college and I had strep (with the strep rash all on my arms) but no one else could close the store that night. I could afford to miss the three hours, but I was scared to rock the boat because I saw how my bosses spoke about other people who took sick time. This was American Apparel (lol) when it still existed. All the managers were like twenty two and would bitch and moan if anyone called out sick about how annoying it was. Basically like they should’ve come in was the implication. 

I don’t really think it will change after all this. I think right now companies are more sensitive to calling off because of Covid because they have to be, but as more and more people are vaccinated and things begin to approximate normal life again that will probably fade away. 


Before I got my present job I was working at a big box store. It was one of those soul-sucking outfits where they bilk you for all you're worth while shorting you a half hour here and there to make sure they don't have to give you benefits, like sick days or health insurance. They'd spent years at that company demanding managers pare down staff to the absolute bare minimum, while ignoring that if one person called out the entire shift was fucked, and yet every time that happened they acted like it was our fault, how dare we.

My boss was a real fucking monster, and his two assistant managers were spineless minions who backed him up on everything, but all three of them were masters at showing you a tiny little sliver of kindness every once in a while, just to keep you from writing them off completely. This is important because one winter, right around the holidays, I came down with something absolutely murderous. High fever, sore throat, headache, you name it. I couldn't get out of bed. I figured this will suck but surely this will be a moment where my managers act like human beings. Ha. I tried to call in sick and was told if I didn't come in to work I could consider myself fired. We went back and forth for a few minutes, until finally my manager told me point blank that without a doctor's note I had no reason not to come in and I'd better be clocked in when my shift rolled around. I didn't (and still don't) have a primary doctor who could have given me a note on the fly. I said as much to my boss and he told me “Too bad” and hung up.

I vividly remember crying while I dragged myself out of bed and tried to get ready, because my entire body hurt so bad. I could barely stand up at the register, and the boss and his little minions made a big deal out of looking ashamed of themselves, but they never said “you're very obviously sick, go home.” They kept me there until an hour after closing, even though I certainly wasn't capable of helping to clean up the store. The only solidarity or acknowledgement or baseline sympathy came from my coworkers, who did everything they could to try and make that shift easier for me, while my boss complained over the headset that I was dragging or not smiling enough and bringing everyone down. It was nightmarish.

And of course, because he forced me to come in, a bunch of my coworkers also got sick over the next couple weeks and were all given the same treatment. Looking back, I can't even imagine how many customers must have gotten sick because of it.

You're just fucked in those situations, you know? I couldn't not have a job. It didn't matter how fucked up the method of firing was, what was I going to do about it? I didn't have money for lawsuits, and my boss knew that. The HR department was geared entirely towards protecting the company. Every single justified complaint about my boss had gone nowhere for years, though the people who complained sure did mysteriously acquire a bunch of write-ups and get fired real fast. Even when my manager could see with his own eyes that he'd fucked up by asking me to come in, he couldn't bring himself to apologize and send me home, if not for my sake than for everyone else around me. Nothing mattered to them except their bottom line.


I remember puking in a five gallon bucket in the kitchen with norovirus because no one else could work the salad station. Throwing up with diarrhea and told to stay by my boss because getting through service was more important. My lungs gurgling on the expo station. I found out it was pneumonia after service in the ER.  Working the door forty one weeks pregnant because there was no one else and it was my first day of “maternity leave.” Only taking six weeks after birth/c-section and bartending with leaking breasts because we needed the money. 


I had strep throat, fever and cough. I got antibiotics from the pharmacy I worked at (Walgreens), and got dinged on my evaluation for missing work “too close to inventory.” I never signed that evaluation and put in my resignation less than a month later.


This was whatever year it was that the H1N1 outbreak happened, and I had been out of work for a couple days with what is still the worst illness I have ever had in my life. My mom came up from Atlanta to where I was living in Athens because my parents were scared I might need to go to the hospital or worse. I was working at this big golf/wine/spa resort called Chateau Elan, and every year they have a holiday event for local kids, and resort employees do crafts with them, lead games and activities, that sort of thing. They let me call out for a few days, but when it came time to set up the carnival and then host it the next day, I was required to come in to do some of the setup labor and then help kids paint and do crafts and stuff. It was all customer-facing that second day. 

On the first day, I remember going to the warehouse of the main building, where they kept the wine stock, to lie down on a shipping pallet for a while because I thought I was going to collapse, and no one would see me there. If I had refused to come in, they would have fired me, and this was right after the first part of the financial collapse. I didn't think I could get another job. They put me on furlough through the rest of the holidays and then laid me off after the first of the year anyway!

I only think this will change post-Covid if we can organize more unions and strengthen labor laws. I don't think employers care.


When I was in my twenties I was working three jobs to put my young wife through school. Comic book store in the mornings, Officemax in the afternoons, and a porn shop at night. Taking any time off of any job meant a very good likelihood of eating ramen or having no electricity. Usually I managed my schedule well, but there was at least one stretch of working a week with two hours to sleep in the apartment over the porn shop and shower.

At one point I wound up with a flu. I imagine. I didn't see a doctor, obviously. It went up to 105. I was barely conscious for a day and a half. The fever was Sunday, and I woke up on Tuesday in the afternoon. I almost lost two of my jobs at that point, since I didn't call in. That was because I was sweating through my mattress. After that, I had to go back to work despite being still feverish for the next three days. I'm sure that I spread a that flu far and wide. It was a nasty one.


There was a week where I worked sick at a company that subcontracted phone tech support services to other, larger companies. It was miserable. I spent the whole time bundled up at my desk and shotgunning cough drops. I couldn't afford to lose the hours from my paycheck.


I recently worked through two bouts of strep throat and a case of walking pneumonia at a white collar job because I was a “permalance” temp worker at a household brand institution.


Back in 2016 I got laryngitis really bad. I showed up to my job at 5 am not feeling good, and by 2 pm, I couldn’t talk at all. I was also clearly sick. This alone should be grounds for not coming into any job, but at the time I had a job where I took animals to kids’ birthday parties. Clearly a job where talking is needed. I couldn’t call out, we were short staffed, and my boss had just fired one of the girls cause his wife had found out he was cheating on her with the girl. (I’d normally put “allegedly” but he told me all of this). I had to go in the next day and do more birthday parties, unable to speak. Both families were very nice, but I couldn’t talk and was also probably giving god knows how many germs to a ton of children. I texted my boss between parties to let him know this was very stressful to be doing these parties and we really did need to get more people so someone else could step in. He responded that I’d “interrupted” him in the middle of his son’s birthday party and that he “would not allow [my] anxiety to dictate his life.” 

This was not the first time I’d come to this job with no voice or clearly sick. But it was the first (and last) time I’d expressed concern that I was part of a workplace culture where we were obligated to work sick. Anytime someone did call out, they were ridiculed and my boss would say “You have to work on your day off, jEssIcA hAS KIdnEY sToNes.”

I’ve worked a lot of birthday party/after school program jobs run by better people who pretty much had the same “show must go on” mentality, and it fosters this really unhealthy mentality that if you’re “selfish” enough to take care of yourself, everyone else is going to be given more work, or little Timmy won’t get his birthday party. Back when I was 23, my dad died on a Thursday. I didn’t leave town to handle family affairs until Sunday because I knew my job didn’t have anyone who could fill in for me, so I just worked the rest of my schedule. I was in this line of work for ten years and I’m so relieved I’m no longer working those jobs because I'm so sure I’d be bringing the animals to parties of people who are not taking the pandemic seriously. 


One of my old bosses at the Post Office was a huge stickler for anyone missing even a day of work needing to bring a doctor's note (always an absurdity), and one guy refused to do it so he just text-spammed the boss pictures of his diarrhea throughout his day at home and got suspended.


Does it count if nobody explicitly says that you have to be at work, but you're still working while sick because you just understand that you need to be there because the organization is understaffed?


I worked in a lot of food service jobs as a teen, Arby's, Taco Bell, etc., and I can say for certain that the industry standard is that you can't call in sick unless you find someone to take your shift. It's your responsibility to call around and ask your co-workers on their day off to see if they can cover you. If nobody can/will, you either have to come in anyway or be written up. If this has happened before and you've already gotten a write-up or two from it, then you're looking at losing your job if you don't come in.

Sick pay does not exist in these jobs, so you also have to factor in if you can afford to take time off anyway. This was how it was done every single place I worked in high school. I know this is the standard for most menial labor type jobs but I always found it particularly disturbing in food service specifically. If you're picking up fast food ever there's a pretty good chance somebody handling your food is sick. It's just par for the course. 


There are tons of having to work sick stories of course, but the one that immediately jumps to mind is one of the last times I actually worked. Typically I work in a medical/retail field. In April, possibly even May, we were operating with little to no instructions from the higher ups as to safety protocols, cleaning, sickness, etc. I understood that people were caught off guard, but there was nothing coming down the pipeline. I was wearing a bandana over my face, like some wannabe cowboy, and trying to hand sanitize and clean as much as possible. But it hadn't quite filtered down to the general population yet so it was a hotbed of germs. I work in the eyeglass/contact lens industry, so there’s lots of close contact, touching of faces, trying on of glasses etc. In this environment I got hit with a pretty rough cold/flu.  We were a pretty bare-bones operation that also requires a licensed professional (me) to be present at all times the shop is opened.  

So I called up the boss and said “Look, I get it. Typically this would mean just take a bunch of Dayquil and knock out the shift. But considering this Covid stuff I think I should probably stay home.” I figured it was basic courtesy to our patients at this time to not have an obviously sick person handing out medical devices. They quickly started in with the regular boss bullshit guilt trip stuff: No coverage, sounds like the company is going to have to start cutting people, etc. I just told them “Listen, I'll work. I just want it on record that I told you I was sick and you said come in anyway.”  

There was some back and forth, and while they sort of said ok to that, it was also floated that if I could find coverage then I can stay home. Typical horseshit. So I worked a ten hour shift of cold/flu bullshit during a pandemic, interacting with hundreds of patients. We were shut down by the government only a few days after this, and I've been furloughed ever since.  


I didn’t have to work, but at a direct care job in my twenties I needed a doctor’s note to get paid for sick days. I dragged myself to the doctor with what was most likely the flu. The doctor asked me why I drove there when I should be sleeping. He had some choice words when I told him why.


I worked at a nonprofit preschool/daycare in Nashville for four years. I’m also immunocompromised. I made less than $15/hr with a bachelor’s degree. I loved teaching, but those kids constantly got me sick and admin constantly punished us for being sick. We were required to use PTO, but didn’t get sick days, even with a doctor’s note. We’d end up with negative PTO hours, so our ability to earn PTO meant working back up to zero first. 


My story isn't that bad relatively, especially compared to the stories I've heard from my boyfriend who works as a manager at a deli, but since my employer at the time prided itself in having a "flexible" office environment even for grunts like me, I think it's worth sharing just to prove these things don't just happen to people in retail or food service. 

I worked the afternoon shift at a company where the job was more or less transcription. The past couple of days I had a scratchy throat that was turning into something bad enough I decided to see a doctor. I made sure to call the shift supervisor as early as possible that day to say in detail “I'm going to see the doctor. If it's something serious and contagious, I'm going to go home; if it's not, I'll come in after my appointment and tough it out.” Needless to say, when I got the diagnosis of bronchitis and was told I should go home, I called my shift supervisor and even after I told him the doctor's recommendation he got snippy with me, suggesting I had said I was coming in right after the appointment no matter what. This was probably only the second sick day I took, and as an aside, my employer had a strict use-them-or-lose-them policy that got stricter.

Also, we had to share our computers and workstations with people who worked the other shifts, but we had to bring our own cleaning supplies, so I guess the person who took my workstation would have been just shit out of luck if I had given in to my supervisor and came in anyway. 

One last aside: this is the same company that gave me a raise, then two months later fired me and rehired me as a contractor. 


A boss once told me "If you are well enough to worry about whether you should call in, you're healthy enough not to call in." 


I was working as a paramedic for a private ambulance company. We were saving money and PTO for my wedding and about nine months before the big day I got super sick. Pneumonia, high fever, chills, body aches, cough. Horribly sick. They told me I could go home but even if I found someone to cover my shift, they’d still take it out of my PTO. We couldn’t afford it, as our PTO was a joke, and I worked for a week barely able to even lift my own body let alone care for 911 emergency patients. Private ambulance companies are the most fucked up. 


In 2000 I was 19 yrs old, working a 2 pm-12 am closing shift at a White Hen Pantry. We were responsible for covering our own absences, even for last minute illness. There were only two other people with keys to the store, one of whom worked the opening shift, which started at 4 am. I’d spent the previous four months homeless, and then in rehab, and my living situation was dependent on my ability to stay clean and employed. I worked sick for three years before I was able to save enough to move away from that situation.


I worked for years in Boston while trying to get through school, typically two jobs at a time. I lived in a basement apartment with mold on the ceiling next to a dumpster. Still barely made rent. I would never call out sick because I couldn't lose hourly wages/tips. For years. I relied on comped restaurant meals and Sbarro's workers who gave me breadsticks they were about to throw out. The kicker, since I spent more time in school because of working, is I spent more loan money and now owe a ton. 

I made the terrible decision based on the general cultural attitude in 2002 that taking out massive loans to go to school in Boston was a good idea. (It wasn't). My family didn't save any money for college because my parents divorced and my mom was basically a single mother for a while with three kids. After a year in dorms I decided it was more cost effective to try to work to pay rent through school, so I worked at the Borders in Downtown Crossing for years, and eventually had to start working at restaurants too… My first apartment was behind Fenway park in a basement with two other guys. It was as described — very gross.

I 100% would never call out sick. I remember one time going to work after being assaulted in Faneuil Hall around Trinity bar. I had to work the cafe at 6am so I went in even though there was blood coming out of one of my ears…

Anyways, I have a good job as a marketing director now but I almost never use sick days out of some residual guilt or a learned behavior. I've used maybe three to five in the past decade at various jobs. It’s not the best attitude in a pandemic, and I’m trying to get better about it, but now if I'm sick I work from home.

There's definitely, from what I've seen, a gap between working poor attitudes about it and upper class, which exacerbates health inequality, along with other things obviously. It goes from worrying about hourly wages to pay rent/bills to worrying about losing your job without a safety net. Some people don't have to worry about any of that, which sounds nice.


I was diagnosed with stage 3 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at twenty six. I wasn’t a career employee yet, so I didn’t have leave to use. My two week schedule was eleven days of work, one day off for chemo, two days off for rest. It was six months of that.


I was the sole person responsible for all the baked goods at a certain eatery south of Boston, and definitely had the norovirus. Like not officially because I’m too sick to go to the actually doctor, but I was hitting all notes, like every vile symptom, I had them in spades. At this job the place is closed to the public Mondays but that when I do the bulk of my week’s work. I have the place to myself and get a head start on the week. I’d been sick all weekend and Sunday night I called my boss and explained in medical detail the situation I was in. She was silent on the phone and weirdly made me feel like I was lying. Like not even an obligatory “TMI” or “aawwww.” Nothing. Then, after her manipulative, unempathetic pause she said “I’d really hate to lose a day of baking…” Fuuuuuck. OK. So, not wanting to get fired or make my boss upset I went in. I wore gloves and stuff, but I dunno, sorry to the 2014 township that may have gotten sicker than any other time in their lives because a day of baking couldn’t be lost.


I recently kept being sick a secret for fear of losing the job. 

I’m in Brooklyn, and I had taken a break from teaching high school to have a “straightforward” job managing three pilates studios. The studios are owned and operated by a complete god in the pilates world. In the final weeks of February and early March, our very wealthy clients started to demand a stepped up cleaning routine that I was expected to maintain. I started to become sick in early March but the attitude (and reality) was that no one could do my particular job and so there was no ability to “be sick.” Sickness would be like giving up on the project of making this fitness studio viable through Covid, which is what the owner was hoping for even though SHE HAD TAKEN HER DAUGHTER OUT OF SCHOOL AND FLED TO LONG ISLAND. She was totally protected in her beach house. She was calling, texting, emailing with demands for more heavy lifting by me. Shipping books, arranging new class formations, taking trainers who were [prudently trying to avoid Covid] off the schedule.

It’s not like I could have not done this and the studios could be open. She wasn’t even there to do a single thing. I remember being on Slack with the operations lead complaining that this woman fucked off to safety and expects us to work like dogs without once asking if we have been affected by Covid. I was weirdly sick and running around Brooklyn while being bitched at by clients, trainers, and mostly, the absent owner. 


I used to get chronic migraines with auras so bad that I would be effectively blind, and this happened at work one day at a big name coffee shop. Because I could barely see, I ended up taking Advil PM to try to help without realizing what it was. So I was pretty much blind, in extreme pain, and my body was trying to fall asleep all at the same time. My boss told me to “power through it” and wouldn't let me go home.


Probably not the most gruesome story you’ll hear about working while sick, but even though I have a very stable office emails job and cushy life and get treated like a human being at it and all that, I’ve felt obligated to power through illness and go in to the office, mostly to not “let the team down” or inconvenience them. Like it will need to be super obvious that I cannot or should not head in or log on for the day before I actually go “fuck this” and go see a doctor. My insurance has no deductible and affordable copays, it’s not like I have that excuse!

One time specifically when I was contract-to-hire early on in the position I took on a bunch of overtime to get a project out the door on deadline, impress everyone, and ensure I landed this job full time on salary, even though that was pretty much guaranteed at that point, and the stress from that probably led to me contracting viral conjunctivitis. Aside from driving around suburbia at like 9 pm on a weeknight trying to get to an urgent care that would take my HMO insurance while somewhat loopy from being sick, I had set up a few tablets for team members to do some testing before I got the diagnosis. So then the next day I sent out this very frantic email about needing to disinfect the tablets and sorry for maybe accidentally infecting them with whatever the hell I had. I don’t think anyone came down from that but man, loads of bullshit adding unnecessary trouble over easily avoidable stuff.

I also don’t think we do enough to manage stress in the workplace and how that exacerbates health issues and that.

Another time like a month before Covid had the office go full-time remote I overheard someone in the break room on a Friday say “I’m pretending I’m not sick” to her friend. Management is totally cool with working remote when you’re feeling sick, I took a sick day and then spent nearly a week with my laptop on the couch when I caught the flu like a year ago, so like, damn, how much do you hate your life that you’d rather come in to the office and maybe infect a bunch of us and our friends or children and then their contacts and all that? This was before we all had to become amateur epidemiologists to step outside and shit but the cheery selfishness of that got to me.


Before testing was more available, I was ordered by a doctor to remain at home. My boss berated me in front of coworkers in a Zoom, and frequently called me to tell me I was just panicking. Prior to that I had a bank job that provided eleven sick days, but after ten reserved the right to terminate you. 


In between semesters at college I worked at an ice cream factory. While I can’t prove that I got allergy-induced pneumonia from the cardboard dust in the air, I definitely did collapse on the line from low o2 levels and ended up in the emergency room. When I left for the hospital, I was told that if I didn’t return the next day that I wouldn’t have a job. As an adult, I’d be like, fuck it, I’ll find another job. But when I was 21, I needed that money so hard. Sure, part of it was party money, but my family was poor as hell. I wouldn’t have called it this at the time because I just didn’t think that way but it was survival money.


I've had my share of retail jobs where this is the case, but something that stands out was arguing with other managers at my giant office job about the way they were attempting to pressure people to not call out and how that sort of thing sucks and none of them understanding.


About fifteen years ago a mason I worked for made me come in after I caught the flu, from him, after he took a week off to deal with it. He told me he'd replace anyone who took time off even though I had a fever of 102 and it was 20 degrees out.  Three days of hell. Fuck you Johnny.

He was my girlfriend’s sister’s boyfriend. He ran a small masonry company of six people. I was just a laborer, doing set up and servicing the masons through the day. On a job we were doing at a nursing home that wasn't under a tight time schedule, Johnny ended up catching the flu and took a week off to stay home in bed to get over it. I know this because I saw him a couple times that week when I dropped by their house after work (The rest of us were still on the job). 

The next week he came back and I started coming down with it on Tuesday. I told him Tuesday night I felt like crap and I was running a fever, weak and nauseous, and he was like Well I still need you tomorrow. I thought he was kidding. He called me the next morning to make sure I was coming in. When I told him I was laid up in bed and was going to take a couple days to get over that, he said he couldn't have that, he needed everybody on the job, and he would let me go to replace me because he wanted to get that job done.

When you work in these kinds of jobs if you get taken off of a job you're kind of screwed because you're going to miss a week or two at work, which I couldn't afford. So I ended up going in anyways, with him ragging on me the entire time about being slow or sitting down when I needed to. I made it, but it fucking sucked, and it was completely unnecessary. He did the same thing to another guy we were working with too that week. Even more fucked up was that he really didn't need to do that, he just wanted that job done so he could take some time off


I’m a bartender (need I say more?) and I had the flu. Like the actual flu, the one that feels like death and people got vaccinated for before all this nonsense. I tried to get my shift covered and couldn’t, so had to make drinks for people half delirious with a temperature for a thirteen hour shift. The best part was when the dinner rush was over my manager started drinking (per usual) and then said “you got this right?” (per usual) and left me alone to manage and close (per usual). After I locked the door I fell asleep on the bar for an hour. I left at 4:30 am.

The half military, half mafia mentality in the restaurant industry is still so ingrained that I feel like a pussy complaining about it. #TeamPlayer ‘til I actually die, I guess. Of course it’s all bullshit, but it makes twenty two year old immigrants and English majors feel like they’re essential.


I work in the technology department at a public university continuing education conference center. My department is three people, and we're typically covering conferences, meetings, classes, and other events six days a week often from 7 am until 10 at night. Oftentimes, the shift requires three technicians, but even if two can handle it, my calling in sick would 1) require waking somebody else up at like 5:30 to be there on time, and 2) make somebody else have to work a twelve plus hour shift. 

I try not to call in sick day during the busy season (February - May and September - November). And if I do, I usually go in for a couple of hours in the morning until somebody else can get it. Usually it just means working through colds, minor flu-like symptoms, but I did at one point put off going to the doctor during a busy month for what later turned out to be gallstones that required surgery.

New management is better about it. But I think I've probably internalized a lot of that pressure over the years, and will still come to work on days that I know are busy unless I feel like I just can't do it.

And like I said, it's usually just minor colds, so not a huge health risk to me, other than prolonging something that probably would have gone away quickly had I only stayed in bed and slept it off, but the issue is more exposing coworkers and clients to those germs and just spreading that sickness around to everybody.

Share