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Will the COVID-19 pandemic change our perception on employees staying home when they are sick?

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Posted at 11:30 AM, Feb 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-23 20:08:35-05

DENVER — For nearly a year, Coloradans have been coping with a new reality of life in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thousands have died in the state after contracting the virus and many others have been hospitalized or sickened.

However, with more people receiving vaccines each day, life and work might be able to return to a semblance of normal soon. For some, that means heading back into the office for work.

When employees are allowed to return, though, will this pandemic change the way businesses approach sick time and the work while sick culture that some argue exists in the country? Denver7 went 360 to listen to multiple perspectives on the topic.

Colorado sick leave changes

On a state level, 2020 was a year of big changes for laws around paid time off. Colorado lawmakers passed a bill to require all businesses to provide two weeks of paid sick leave to people who have been infected with COVID-19 or who need to care for someone who has.

Beyond that, the new law requires businesses with 16 employees or more to allow workers in the state to accrue up to six paid sick leave days annually beginning in 2021. Businesses with 15 employees or fewer must offer the same accrued sick time by next year.

Under the new law, employees (both hourly and salary) earn one hour of paid time off for every 30 hours they work.

Colorado voters also took a major step in November to pass Proposition 118, otherwise known as the Paid Family and Medical Leave Act. The initiative creates an insurance program that allows employees to take time off of work to have a baby, receive medical treatment or care for a sick loved one, among other things.

Starting Jan. 1, 2023, employers and employees would start to contribute a payroll premium to finance the paid family and medical leave program. The following January, benefits would begin and employees could start taking the time off.

Workers would be allowed to take up to 12 weeks of leave and be able to keep their job. However, a mother who is experiencing a serious health condition related to pregnancy or childbirth complications would have the option of taking an additional four weeks of leave.

Changing the culture

For Kim Cordova, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, all of these changes are a good start.

“I think before COVID and even during COVID there has been a work while sick culture in this country,” Cordova said. “They don’t feel they have any other choice. They don’t want to lose their jobs and they also don’t want to face homelessness or starvation.”

Cordova represents front line grocery workers, health care providers, food processing workers, packing plant employees and more.

Among the groups Cordova represents are employees from the JBS meat-packing facility, where some of the deadliest COVID-19 outbreaks in the state occurred last year.

In the weeks before those deadly outbreaks, the Weld County Health Department even warned JBS about its work while sick culture.

Cordova says tactics like requiring a doctor’s note or pooling vacation time and sick time into one pot can also serve as disincentives for employees to call in sick.

Lower-wage workers, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck, also face challenges of their own since many may not have previously allotted any sick days.

“I think it’s a class issue. I mean, the working class has to work and struggle with these everyday dilemmas,” Cordova said. “This has been going on for too long in this country where workers have had to make these tough choices.”

She’s hoping the COVID-19 pandemic will serve as a lesson to employers about the importance of health and safety in the workplace and why it is so important to keep their workers safe.

Beyond that, Cordova argues encouraging workers to stay home when they are sick is better for customers as well.

“Customer should not have to wonder if a sick worker or a healthy worker is serving their food,” she said.

The benefit of staying home

There are potential economic benefits for businesses that allow employees to call out sick, according to Glen Mays, a professor of public health policy at the Colorado School of Public Health.

“We know from strong evidence that taking sick days significantly reduces the likelihood of transmission in the work settings,” Mays said.

Some studies have suggested that allowing employees to have sick time reduced the spread of influenza in workplaces by as much as 20%.

When a sick employee stays home, fewer of their coworkers are exposed, which could result in fewer overall people having to call out sick from a single virus in any given year.

More than that, Mays says employees who show up to work sick are also less productive during the day than they would normally be.

“This is a phenomenon that’s called presenteeism,” he said. “When you have workers who are ill that are still showing up to work but that have limits on their productivity because of health conditions, it’s definitely a serious drag on productivity.”

Mays believes that there is a false dichotomy between protecting health and boosting the economy. Instead, he argues that the health of the economy and the health of workers go hand in hand.

“It’s not a trade off, but investments and public health protection has actually helped to strengthen our economic productivity,” he said.

Aside from the bottom line, another hurdle to overcome is the mindset from some employees that missing a few days will set them back professionally. Some people feel a sense of guilt for calling in sick knowing that it might create more work for others or that they are in some way letting their team down.

Mays prefers to think about it another way, arguing that staying home when you’re not feeling well can be the kindest thing you can do for your coworkers so they don’t get sick.

“It is kind of a cultural shift that we need to take. We need to change norms and behaviors with regard to being responsible and taking sick leave when it’s needed to protect your health and the health of the worker,” he said.

With changing sick leave policies on a state level and more companies learning how to remain productive while their employees work from home, he hopes the pandemic will shift the state’s mindset on the work while sick culture.

The challenge of change

With any major change to employment law, there are challenges for companies. Rayner Mangum is an employment attorney who helps businesses navigate through the changes.

Before the changes in Colorado law, roughly 60% of employees in the state had access to some sort of paid sick leave.

Mangum says most of the employers she works for have generous paid time off policies.

“The work we have done is really just been adjusting their policies and making sure that all of the language that is now required to be in there is in there,” she said.

Most of the concerns she has been hearing from clients was just about the practicality of implementing the new law and making sure they understand the requirements.

“Colorado is certainly not the only state enacting a law like this one (SB-205) and, honestly, I feel for some of our employer clients with employees that are in states all across the country, because a lot of states are enacting these laws but none of them are identical,” Mangum said.

For companies that operate in multiple states, making sure company policy complies with varying laws can be a challenge.

Even with the changes, there is still some grey area with questions Mangum says she isn’t able to fully answer for clients since the law hasn’t been tested in the courts quite yet.

There’s also the question of cost for employers and employees. After SB-205 was passed by state lawmakers and before it was signed into law, dozens of business groups came together to call on Governor Jared Polis to veto it, saying it would hurt employers.

Others have speculated that the new law would crush small businesses that are already struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic.

“Certainly, for smaller employers, I think, this could be a little bit more burdensome and I think one of the concerns that we heard is that if the pandemic really hit hard and a big part of the workforce goes out all at once, that certainly could be an issue for a particular employer,” Mangum said.

Denver7 reached out to several chambers of commerce in the state to talk about the changes to the law and the work while sick culture in our country, but none of the groups agreed to speak on camera.

For now, burdensome or not, businesses will have to learn to navigate the changes to the law.

However, whether the pandemic will actually change the mentality employers and employees in the country have about coming to work sick, and how long that new mindset will stay around, that's still a question mark at this point.

Editor's Note: Denver7 360 stories explore multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Coloradans, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues. To comment on this or other 360 stories, email us at 360@TheDenverChannel.com. See more 360 stories here.