In This Latest Covid Surge, Americans Are Struggling to Make Ends Meet Without Sick Leave

Elsa Erazo’s voice is faint when we speak on the phone. She’s in bed. She struggles to find words, in both English and her first language, Spanish. Our conversation is repeatedly interrupted by deep, rattling coughs.

On January 14, Erazo was at her job as a wheelchair attendant at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Tex., pushing elderly and disabled passengers and their luggage through the airport, when she started feeling sick. She got tested for Covid-19 the next day and the test came back positive. She thinks she must have gotten the virus one day at security, where she has to remove her mask when showing her ID, when a passenger who was coughing got too close to her.

Erazo hasn’t returned to work since the 14th, which means she hasn’t earned a cent since then. Her employer, the subcontractor Huntleigh, has never offered her paid sick leave. So every day spent at home now is a day of forgone wages.

“It’s very, very hard,” she said, her voice foggy. “The bills, they continue, they don’t stop.”

Nearly two weeks after she first got sick, she still had significant pain in her back, a nagging cough, and fatigue. She’s not allowed to return to work until she gets a negative test result, which she was waiting for when we spoke. Despite the persistent symptoms, she vowed to go back to work as soon as she had a negative result. She has to pay for health insurance, car insurance, and utilities, cover her rent, and send money to her mother in Honduras. She had to call her phone company and ask them to postpone cutting off her service until she could get paid again. Even once she starts working again, the temporary loss of income will continue to affect her. “The next month [will be] a little hard,” she said.

One of the first things Congress did in response to the emergence of the Covid pandemic was to guarantee paid sick and family leave for the very first time in United States history. Lawmakers passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act in March 2020 on a bipartisan basis, and President Trump signed it into law. It guaranteed two weeks of sick pay for people who got Covid as well as 12 weeks of paid family leave to care for children whose school or day care center had closed.

There were a number of holes in the policy: It excluded businesses with more than 500 employees and offered an exemption to smaller ones, and then–Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia expanded a carve-out for health care workers such that few qualified, although his actions were later undone by a judge. But even with the act’s flaws, a study found that FFCRA paid leave reduced Covid cases by 15,000 a day in the first wave of the pandemic.

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