Rick Davis, a nearly seven-foot tall everyman, with glasses and a salt and pepper beard started feeling a fever that irregularly spiked and fell, during the weekend of March 7. Davis works at the front desk of an entertainment and hotel complex in Nashville, Tennessee. His girlfriend, Tara Shaver, asked if I could describe it that way instead of using its name, because Davis is also a worrier. He stresses about sounding like he doesn’t appreciate his employer, which he does. He stresses about missing shifts because he doesn’t have paid sick leave. When he became the eighth patient in Tennessee to be diagnosed with COVID-19, he stressed because he was already on day six of his recommended 14-day coronavirus quarantine, with at least eight full days of no income ahead. Davis does his job (when he can) and pays his bills and doesn’t take days off for fun. And yet there are no federal government-sanctioned protections for him—not permanent ones, at least. Nothing is coming up Rick Davis, and as a worrier, it would be really nice if things came up Rick Davis right about now.
“He doesn’t have sick leave,” Shaver told me; Davis was too ill to be up to talking. “He had to use a few hours of vacay, but the rest was just leave without pay.” Shaver, who works at a non-profit with paid sick leave, added that Davis’s employer had been lenient with the situation, but “Even missing a day or two sets him back. He had surgery last year and was out for like six weeks. He wasn’t working for his current employer at that time and didn’t have short term disability.”
As America wraps up week two of the coronavirus pandemic, the country’s infected count is now in the thousands. Davis’ predicament, unique last week, is not unique anymore. Stories like his about missing work are becoming the American norm. While some complain about the burden of working from home, others wish for that burden, because their jobs remain in the shops and hotels and restaurants with temporary closure notices on the door: We’re sorry to say that because of COVID-19 we won’t be in operation. We hope to open soon! Those signs are an inconvenience to some; it’s a missed mortgage or rent payment to others.
On March 18, about a week after Davis fell ill, Congress passed the Families First CoronaVirus Response Act, which stalled in the Senate for days while the nation waited on a bafflingly stubborn Mitch McConnell to usher it through to President Trump, who has pledged to immediately sign it into law. The bill is intended to give relief to people who don’t currently have sick leave guaranteed to them amid the COVID-19 crisis, and whose workplaces haven’t yet shut down. But this proposed solution comes with its own set of drawbacks and shortcomings: The bill mandates up to 14 days of paid sick leave for people affected by coronavirus, but it gives exemptions to any employer with over 500 employees. Part of that is because many large companies have sick leave policies already in place. But as of Friday, March 20, the some large employers, remained open without comparable sick-leave plans. The bill also allows for exemptions for small businesses who deem the mandate a hardship on their business. Too many people are going to fall through the loopholes.
In the coming weeks, scores of workers will be burdened with how to address the illness. On Thursday March 19, following the bill’s passage, #ProtectWorkers trended number one on Twitter, nationwide. Store clerks get it. Service workers get it. The world at large gets it. Congress’s relief package, as necessary as it is, is the equivalent of putting a multi-million dollar bandaid on a severed carotid artery. It ignores the larger issue that existed before and will continue to exist after this pandemic: a culture where wage workers have to push through an illness, any illness, in pursuit of a paycheck.
While workers like Davis navigate the throes of COVID-19-induced anxiety and quarantine, Maggie Asfahani, the owner of the Salt + Honey Bakery Cafe in El Paso, Texas, is stuck in the middle between government shortcomings and her employees. She is loyal to her employees in the same way Davis is loyal to his employer. That’s small business as its best. But in a time of pandemic or personal tragedy, it’s not a matter of whether she wants to help them—it’s whether she’s able to. As of Friday, March 20, El Paso has six documented cases of COVID-19, and Asfahani fears what comes next. “As the owner of a small business that has only been open for three years, I don’t have any partners,” she said. “We’re doing well, but if we were to close, it would have a severely detrimental effect on employees, which I’m anxious about.” In attempting to keep her employees afloat with the means she currently has, she thinks she would pull herself under, too. Compensation for all employees would likely push the company’s finances deep into the red, which inevitably would be to the employees’ detriment. It’s an impossible situation.
She wishes that the government could provide more of a safety net for sick workers, during the coronavirus crisis and beyond. “I think it would have to be incremental steps to get there. Healthcare should be a right, but I don’t know how to get there,” she says. And she makes the point that the service industry is a different monster than most. “Kitchens are getting better now, but there’s this tradition of substance abuse. Or people who work themselves so hard that they make themselves sick because they feel they have to perform 100 percent all the time, and use these coping mechanisms,” she said. “All of that affects how the restaurant works and being sick and being out.”
As both the owner of a catering company and a waiter on the side, Chef Nick Peters Bond understands both sides of the service work equation. He has all the makings of a successful restaurateur: Based in Danvers, Massachusetts, he made a name for himself as a seasoned competitor on Seasons 14 and 17 of Hell’s Kitchen. But the culinary field is a competitive one—his dream is to be his own boss, but at the moment, he has to pick up shifts waiting tables to supplement his income. During the week of March 15, all five of his shifts were canceled. The catering side isn’t doing much better. His company, Kitchen to Aisle Catering & Events, has developed a menu for delivery service this week, but that’s only a temporary fix. “[I’m] trying to find a way for it to be mutually beneficial,” he told me, optimistically. “I can make a little bit of money but people can be getting a home cooked meal.”
Normally, when he’s sick, Bond’s husband can support the two of them and their daughter, at least for a little while, since neither of Bond’s gigs comes with sick leave. But with no catering jobs, and a suspension of cater-able events for the foreseeable future, Bond is in unfamiliar territory. “I always find a way to figure it out and make it work,” Bond said. “It’s just a horrible feeling to have to be concerned about finances and job losses when you have a child too.” If it weren’t coronavirus, it would be something else, right?
Cari Stanley is likewise trying to build a new kind of life for her family. A parent herself, she’s working on a career in real estate, but the money in that job alone isn’t enough right now. As back up for her American Dream, Stanley works 15 hours a week at a locally-owned, independent coffee shop in East Tennessee. Since the outbreak, her hours have been reduced to eight a week. Neither position comes with any form of sick leave. Stanley admits that there were days before the coronavirus outbreak when she’d go into work ill. “If I tell my boss I’m feeling off, she says, ‘OMG me too, allergies are bad right now,’ or something along those lines,” she explains over the phone. That’s a stance she can’t accept in the face of COVID-19’s unknowns: “I’m pregnant and have an autoimmune disease so [I’m worried],” she said. “I’m relying on people doing their part.” The number of cases in Tennessee has hopped to 154 as of the morning of Friday, March 20. When the virus surely ventures to her side of the state, Stanley will have a choice, assuming they don’t close the coffee shop: show up to work or protect herself and others in her community in lieu of a paycheck.
The waiting game is happening in a lot of smaller American cities. Back down in El Paso, Chantel Loera is getting in as much work as an esthetician as she can. Her job literally relies on touching people’s skin, and while she’s acutely aware of what could come, she also notes that she’s still fully booked up. She knows that when COVID-19 infiltrates El Paso in a big way, she will have a struggle on her hands. Granted, it’s not so much different than the one she’s faced before. “Because I work for a local company, they don’t really have that ability to pay for sick leave. Maternity leave, nope. No 401K for the company. No benefits or insurance,” she said, pausing. “If I go out of town, I’m not getting paid.”
Loera has built up a client base. She’s loyal to her employer. She has a savings account, a Roth IRA, and a retirement plan that she’s crafted on her own to compensate for a system that doesn’t afford her one as a benefit. But in this crisis, there’s a chance all that won’t be enough. And while COVID-19 is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, a broken arm might have drained her funds, too. It’s remarkable how little it takes. She admits there are days when going into work sick outweighs staying home. “You kind of have to think, ‘I gotta push through it,'” she said. “Stomach ache or really bad cramps, you just gotta keep going. Put a smile on your face because it’s customer service first.”
As we talked earlier this week, I mentioned to her that the federal sick-leave relief package is stuck in the Senate. Neither of us were too surprised, and she made a valid point: “This virus isn’t a Democrat or a Republican, so it’s not like it’s choosing sides,” she said. “So at the benefit of protecting all workers, yeah, something should be done. I’m blessed to not have kids or be married, but if I did? Or if I did get it? Some place we gotta give.”
Until then, Loera will add “pandemic” to the exhaustive list of reasons her emergency fund exists.
While most of America’s allies around the world have minimum policies of five-day flu leave and 50-day cancer leave, America has nothing. Only 17 individual states have plans in place, and few are any more robust than the minimum just mentioned. And it’s frustrating, because with America’s deep love for productivity, its policies around worker protections indicate that we don’t have the same love for the people who make it possible. You hear a lot about how important America’s workforce is when candidates are running for election, but when a pandemic (or the flu, for that matter) hits, then what? Humans don’t stop being workers when the votes are tallied, and perhaps that’s the point. America’s workforce is a checklist item to too many—a commodity to be accounted for. In reality, America’s workforce is comprised of sons and daughters. Entrepreneurs and people who still have the heart to believe in the American Dream. We shouldn’t have to see their blood to believe that they’re human. In this troubling time, Congress and the President have an obligation to recognize these people, now and beyond this pandemic, as humans worthy of protection.
When I check back in with Davis and Shaver a few days later, it’s day 10 of his quarantine. It’s day four of hers. Shaver, as she suspected she would, contracted COVID-19 too. They were two of the first people tested in the state, but patient numbers are no longer being assigned, which Shaver jokes made her “feel a little less special.” In the interim, she’s been documenting their journey on Facebook Live, giving advice on all things COVID-19. Their plan to compensate for Davis’ lack of income is to apply for Tennessee’s Family and Medical Leave, paired with an application for short term disability. Shaver was pleased when I told her about the bill passed by Congress. In the coming weeks, it’s not just about Congress passing legislation, but also making sure those who need the assistance know it exists.
Loera is already looking past the pandemic. “You’re working your body to the ground, and there can be complications from that later,” she said. “Knowing that you can’t afford help later is very… discouraging.” All of them are keeping up the fight. Chef Nick’s final message, sent to me on Monday, resonates especially: “I’m sure there are a lot more people in much worse financial situations as [sic] me.” That makes me mad, in a way. Because Chef Nick, even now, is representing the best of America’s workforce. But when this pandemic, or any other illness, stops you in your tracks, will the government fight as hard?